Preached at Mt. Hollywood Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Hollywood, California on September 13, 1998.
I did some growing up in dairy farm country in upstate N.Y., in a little town which had a sign posted near the house which read “Fayetteville, population 3,656.” And then my father was transferred to the big city. Now, we were in a metropolis- Binghamton, N.Y. I was overwhelmed as my parents walked me up to the old brick Congregational church that was to become my spiritual home.
Buildings five stories tall. One side of the street had a hobby shop full of electric trains running in the front window. On the other side was a store selling salted nuts, which had put a fan up in the transom window to blow the smell of roasted nuts across your path. And if that didn’t somehow lure you, there was a person on the sidewalk dressed up like a large peanut wearing a tuxedo with a top hat, monocle, and spats, who beckoned you to enter. When I saw this, I knew then and there that this was all of the bright lights and big city sophistication I would ever need.
We got to the old church with its tall bell tower, and went in. It had a wood ceiling, and beautiful stained glass and wooden adornment all throughout. Every Sunday in the years since that first time there, just for a moment — when I come into this church, I have a moment when I smell that old oiled wood, that sense of permanence, tradition and acceptance, and I know that I am home.
I made friends pretty quickly with the kids in church and we combed every inch of that old building. I was the first to dare to go up to the bell tower, and soon I was leading tours of kids up there. As soon as the parents were at coffee hour, we would gather in the empty sanctuary’s balcony at the foot of those tall 27 stairs. — Up to the top, flip the trap door, climb into a dark room. — Shaft of light coming down the next stairs. — Up the stairs into a square room with big opaque stained glass. — Grab the ladder, climb to the trap door and knock, to warn the pigeons whose wings you would hear a moment after; because I quickly learned that there is nothing worse than a small unfamiliar room full of frightened adolescents who are suddenly descended upon by equally frightened poultry. Then, open the trap door and look up at the big bell over your head. — Wait till all the kids were assembled around the bell, then up the last iron ladder, open the trap door, and you were on the roof. And there it was — all of Binghamton, New York stretched out before us. And we would stand and look out over the city in awe, like so many junior Protestant Quasimodos.
We were trying to find God — standing there imagining that the Holy Spirit was welling up in the Sanctuary below, and moving up through that tower to find us in its secret places as we came down, so that by the time we reached the sanctuary floor, we would feel full of God’s mystery. It was our secret. I was a guest at my home church, and after service I was told that we had fooled no one. It was pretty clear to most folks where a bunch of adolescents had been when they arrived half an hour late for coffee hour looking wild and wind-blown, and covered in soot and pigeon feathers. Seems that those parents had done some time in that tower when they were younger, and had passed it on to us quietly.
We sat with our youth group in the balcony on Sundays. We made parachutes out of handkerchiefs tied to notes that said things like “Boring Sermon, Send Oxygen,” or “Mildred Pierce lives,” and dropped them off the balcony. That didn’t last long, because the choir started watching us like hawks. But it did give the choir the impressive appearance of glancing heavenward during the sermon, but they were just checking on us. But something important happened there for me. I sat in one of these pews like you are right now, and a seed was planted. I knew who I was when I knew I was a part of God.
Back then our minister’s name was Dr. Gambell, and I admired him very much. I wanted to be like him, so I tried to find out what it was that I needed to do. What made him a great man? I kept a scrapbook which I still have with every church bulletin in it from the mid sixties. But my scrapbook became very sad, because Dr. Gambell suddenly died in an accident. In losing him, it was clearer to me what it was that the church had lost, and who he was. He was someone who used his spiritual gifts, and who behaved like a Christian. He used his great gifts in giving his gracious presence to others.
Our passage from Romans outlined what my task was, what all of our tasks are in order to behave like a real Christian. To love without being phony, really hold on to what is good, be affectionate to each other, serve God, be glad to be able to have hope, be patient in trouble, pray, give to others, bless those who give you a hard time, be happy with those who are happy, and don’t be afraid to cry with those who are sad. Live peacefully with each other, and let God worry about who should be judged. Don’t be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
All right, good enough — that’s a great plan. But when does it happen? When do we feel complete, like we’re whole with God? Some of us don’t know how to start, because we don’t even know who we are yet. I certainly didn’t, sitting in church 30 years ago. Or perhaps some of you were hurt by the church, and didn’t have the loving experience so many who grew up here experienced. But the question is: how do we open up and become who we were meant to be? I want to tell you a true story.
There was an artist in Paris who loved his work, and he built a studio on the outskirts of the city. It had a high central room with a balcony around it off a little kitchen, where he could sit and look down on his work while he ate. He had a gift for painting as well as sculpture, and he was lucky to be able to work with the gifts God had given him.
Then came the Second World War, and he became a member of the French Resistance and fought underground for France. His studio became a secret sanctuary, and a gathering place where the seeds were planted in people like him in order that they might do what they felt was right even at the risk of their own lives. But in the summer of 1945, he was shot and killed, just weeks before the war ended.
His oldest son came to the studio and cleaned it up. He covered all his father’s bright and beautiful artwork. The statues on the main floor were shrouded from top to bottom. The paintings, whether on easels or hanging on the walls, were also covered tight. Then he set a place at the table on the balcony for his father, left the studio and locked it from the outside, and shuttered all of the windows. Over the next 45 years, he would return to this studio to check on it, dust it, and make sure everything was covered and hidden from the world. He kept this shrine to himself, he claimed it as his; never letting the rest of his family, let alone the art world of Paris who remembered this well-regarded artist closer than the shuttered windows on the street. Only through the reluctance of death, did his father’s studio pass on to his niece.
In October of 1991, I boarded a non-stop flight from Los Angeles to Paris to meet a close friend from Manhattan there. Jeff had picked the hotel, which had worried me a little, and my fears were very well founded. It didn’t matter. We were in Paris, it was a beautiful day, and jet-lagged as I was, we walked and stopped for deep black espressos. Our artist friends Edmonde and Christine were very excited that we were both here at the same time, and wanted to have us over that night for a gathering in a place no-one had ever been before.
We called her. She knew I was probably tired, but could we come right over? There was going to be a special dinner with several guests in honor of her grandfather. I had been up for 24 hours, but I said I’d give it a try, just because it sounded mysterious. You see, her uncle had passed away, and she had inherited her grandfather’s art studio.
We took the Metro to what looked more like a medieval village than the limits of the bustling Paris I knew. We wound up and down old stone streets until we came to an alleyway. A two-story house with barn doors, looking like a carriage house, stuck out as fitting the description, and we knocked. I remember how ridiculous it felt to knock on barn doors, when a smaller door cut into these doors opened, and our friends spilled out onto the sidewalk. We hugged and kissed, and made a fuss over their beautiful young daughter, and then they invited us in. We became hushed, and in awe. We were in her grandfather’s studio as he had left it in 1945. His art lay shrouded like ghosts. You could sense the life that was under those coverings, as well as the sadness of the person who had covered them over. The room felt gray. We went up to the balcony to meet other family members and everyone felt the same anticipation — something was going to come to life tonight.
As they told us the story of her grandfather, and her uncle’s decision to shut it all away, a wonderful French meal was prepared, and brought out to the table on the balcony where one table setting had already been placed, and we sat down. The story came alive to me as I broke bread with them, looked down at the shrouded art, and glanced at the empty place setting.
In their broken English and our terrible French, we understood that tonight, we were going to uncover art. In silence there was a grace, then Edmonde walked downstairs to the center of the room, and pulled the shroud off the tallest piece in the middle. It was an arm, with a beautiful hand, and it pointed upward. We looked at it reaching up to us on the balcony, and then almost too soon, a vivid painting lost its covering and color filled the room. Then one after another, the artwork was exposed to us who looked down on it; statues big and small, canvasses of swirling colors, some finished and some unfinished, it didn’t matter — the direction the unfinished pieces took was more interesting than some of the finished ones. But one thing was sure. When Edmonde had finished uncovering the art, the room had changed from a dark gray to a brilliance of light and color, feeling and balance, and above all, life and spirit. Each piece caught our eye, and we shouted out our feelings and observations in our different tongues, trying to be understood, yet knowing that how we felt at that moment needed no common language. And in the midst of it all, we were silenced by the sight of the empty place at the table. Truly, the artist was with us. Our eyes filled. His place seemed so forgotten and neglected, while we had been admiring his creation. None of us had ever seen him, yet how could he not be with us when his art had been uncovered after so long a time, and had filled us with its beauty. We sat in silence. We ate bread, and we drank from his cups.
Today I’m back in God’s studio on the corner of Prospect and Rodney. A room full of beautiful works of art. Some are statuesque, some abstract. Some are of the realist school, others are impressionistic. Some have been here a long time, and some are new to their easels. Some look pretty much like God is satisfied with the effort, and some are still being molded. Some will need constant molding. Some have raised families, many will, and some will never marry, and they will learn to love their difference. Many are standing ready for all to see, and some are still under their covers.
I remember feeling like that. Like I was covered up somehow, that I wanted to be ready, but wasn’t. Didn’t know if I ever would be. I wanted to know God. Church seemed like the place to find God. There was a mystery here in the building, and I had to find it out, as those of you who grew up here have had to search for mystery in all of the corners of this old original church. That’s why I climbed through every inch of it. If I could become a part of it, be in the places no one went, play the organ loud to let the spirit know I was alive, know it in a way that no-one else did, maybe then I would know God, maybe then I would be ready to be more complete. What I didn’t know then, is what perhaps some of you have already learned. In this room, seeds are planted. Many take root and grow, many do not.
Over thirty years ago a seed was planted in me within my church family, that I would know how to follow the paths I now walk. Each week that you come here and spend time with this church family, seeds will be planted. In worship, in acceptance, by the music… by being works of art in progress in God’s studio. Receive the gift that is here at Mt. Hollywood for you. If you have ears to hear, then listen.
Because nothing is hidden unless it is to be revealed, nor has anything been kept a secret except that it be brought to light. The more you have, the more you will be given. If you decide that you don’t have anything, even that will be taken away from you. Even for so many years were precious artworks hidden in a back street in Paris, they came to light. Come home. We are all artworks of God waiting for the moment to be uncovered. It may not happen when we want it to. For some it happens early, for some like myself, later, and for others, including many churches, not at all.
As a young person, I searched for God all over the building, and I’ve come home to tell you where the kingdom is. It’s presumptuous of me, but I am new enough to still feel that I can make large sweeping statements. Seven words. The gospel of Luke, chapter 17, verse 21: “The Kingdom of God is within you.” It isn’t hidden in the building — it won’t come from the organ pipes or the tower. It will make itself known in the gifts you have been given to use, and in the way you choose to live your lives through your faith. The seed has been planted, as it has throughout the centuries. It has been nurtured in so many souls not with us here today — the saints who have gone before us, patient and brave and true. Right here in this room it has happened over and over again throughout the history of this church and its astounding ministry. Come home, and see what I see.
Folks come in here feeling lost, and this is where they are found, in the Amazing Grace of God at work in a community where the works of art that we are get fashioned from clay. Just like God said to Jeremiah: “I am as a potter at the wheel who will remake you and make you whole if that is your desire.”
Come Home. No matter where you come from, no matter what your experience has been, you who are weary of a world that is unjust and uncaring, come home. Home is the place where they have to take you when no one else will. In this home, we call upon the Holy Spirit in each other to do the uncovering and the bringing of the light of God into the world through our caring, our gifts, and who we are. This is God’s Studio, and I see you as most beautiful and welcome works of art. And to that I say “Amen,” and let the whole church say “Amen.”
Senior pastor of Irvine United Congregational Church UCC in Irvine, Calif., since 2006, Rev. Dr. Paul Tellström also served as pastor of Mt. Hollywood United Church of Christ in Los Angeles. He graduated from Syracuse University and earned an M.Div. from Claremont School of Theology, where he was given the Distinguished Preaching Award, and a doctor of ministry degree from Chicago Theological Seminary.