Sunday, May 27, 2012

On Fire--a sermon for Pentecost

Rev. Teri Peterson
On Fire 
Acts 2.1-22, 24, 32-33, 37-39 27
May 2012, Pentecost

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’ But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 
“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
 and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
 and your old men shall dream dreams. 
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
 in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
 and they shall prophesy. 
And I will show portents in the heaven above
 and signs on the earth below,
 blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 
The sun shall be turned to darkness
 and the moon to blood,
 before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” ‘You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. 
This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear. Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?’ Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.’

I know not everyone gets as excited about things as I do, but think back to the last time you were really excited for something. What was it? Can you call up that feeling of anticipation, of joy, of passion? When we’re passionate about something, we can feel it, and so can the people around us. We talk faster and louder, for some of us our color rises and people wonder if we’re burning up inside—and we are, that’s why it’s called “being fired up!”! That excitement calls up the fire in our bones and our bellies, and we can talk for hours, at a speed and volume that may very well lead people to wonder if we’re…well…drunk, even if it is nine-o-clock in the morning.

 That kind of passion, that kind of excitement, that kind of love is contagious. You can feel the spark of positive energy in a room or a crowd. Especially when we share things that have called to us, changed us, brought us joy—and when we share in terms others can understand—it makes people want to be a part of that experience or to take action. The fire spreads. Sometimes it’s a slow burn, other times it’s a wildfire driven by wind.

No one knew what to expect when the Spirit blew into that room all those years ago, igniting the church with love. They hadn’t put together a committee and made careful plans. When the Spirit blew in, they were just an average church—a bunch of people who like to tell stories and host potlucks, with their good and bad habits, their fear and their faith intermingled, uncertainty about the future just as prominent as their love of singing and eating together. What would they do? Who would they be? Why were they here? What was the point? Sure, the fellowship and the worship are nice, and people are friendly, but what are we here for? And can we make it? Do we have a future?

 It’s into this uncertainty that the Spirit comes, whistling and rushing and filling, setting their hearts and their tongues aflame. They were overwhelmed with love, igniting a holy fire in that place. They couldn’t help themselves, they had to talk about it—and not just amongst themselves. They can’t just use the words they’re comfortable with, they can’t just communicate on their own terms—they learn at last to reach into people’s hearts and truly speak in ways others can understand. Finally, they can pass on their excitement, their hope, their stories, their love—they can share the thing that has changed their lives.

There’s a reason that Pentecost is often called the Birthday of the Church. It’s because this is the day when we learned who we are, why we are here, and what to do about it. It’s the day a gathering of people who like potlucks became the Body of Christ commissioned to share the love of God with the world. It’s the day a small group of scared men and women who weren’t sure they could survive the coming year were transformed into a true community that learned to pray, to teach their faith, share their resources, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and feed the hungry without worrying about the budget. It’s the day a bunch of people who thought they knew the story found out what it means to be a storyteller. They didn’t just wait for people to come and notice that they were friendly but struggling, they went out and spoke the language of literally every nation on earth, and found they had more than enough resources for their task. All those names John had to pronounce are the names of every nation that was known at that time—every. single. one. That’s how far God calls us—to every single place, to change the life of every single person, one story and one meal and one small flame at a time. It’s not enough to be on fire with love ourselves, it’s not enough to say we’re just one light, not enough to stay in our upper room and wait for the Spirit to do something else for us while we worry in comfort…we have to do something about it, until the whole world is on fire.

  (video will play at this point)

We come to the table, bringing what we are able, and we’re not alone in this story…we’re looking for a calling, something we can do to change the world…well, the first answer, as Howard Thurman says, is to ask what makes you come alive—because what the world needs is people who are alive. What is your passion? What makes your heart beat faster, what brings color to your cheeks, what makes you talk faster and louder? The world needs that passion. The church needs that passion. We need that spark within and among us. That’s where God is moving in our midst.

Of course, sometimes the church and the world are afraid of passion, of fire. It threatens the way things are, it brings change and that often means pain or destruction before new life takes hold. The heat makes us uncomfortable, and we back away. Or worse, we look for ways to contain it in our safe fire pits, or even to put it out. A few years ago a friend of mine was leading worship on Pentecost when, during the prayers near the end of the service, a candle on the communion table burned dangerously low and the gauzy red tablecloth, which was wafting on the breeze of the air conditioner, caught fire. After a few moments of shouting, confusion, and frozen uncertainty, someone thought to grab the baptismal font and dump the water on the table to douse the flames. While this was a perfectly practical and good thing to do, it does make for a strange metaphor. As my friend put it, “in an absurd clash of symbols, the waters of baptism actually extinguished the fires of the Spirit.”

We can laugh about that, especially since no one was hurt and nothing was damaged. But the reality in the absurd clash of symbols is hard to miss—sometimes entering the church community (which is one of the things symbolized in baptism) can be the fastest way to douse the flames of passion with “we’ve never done it that way before” and “you should…” and “that’s not what we do here.” Working through the channels to get something done, to try something new, to put passion into action, can be exhausting, and many people simply give up—why bother? Especially when the world tells us to just go along with the flow, don’t make waves, be sensible. It’s easier to just come to worship and be filled, or to drift away, or to find some other place where I can put my passions and gifts to good use. Flames belong in their place—safely contained in fire pits or rule books, not actually burning and heating and lighting and spreading.

 But the fire that the Spirit ignites can’t be contained, any more than Jesus could be contained in a tomb or God could be contained inside the Bible. God has a way of bursting out of the confines we put up, and this is no different. The people gathered there were literally blown out of the house, and they spoke to the ends of the earth—because the promise is for you, and your children, and everyone who is far away, everyone God calls. Wind and fire will work together to spread God’s transforming love, setting the world on fire. Will we fan the flames, or dig the trenches?

 May the fire of God’s love burn brightly within us, and through us into the world. Amen.

Monday, May 07, 2012

monday morning haiku

meant to take out trash
memory sparked by truck's sound
oh--maybe next week.