(I preached this sermon on Pentecost, May 31, 2020. You can find the full worship service atwww.ststephenlc.org).
Fire has three necessary ingredients – you need heat, fuel, and oxygen. Take away any one of the three and a fire will either not start or it will be extinguished pretty quickly. Heat is necessary for fire so that the chemical reactions can take place that produces fire or keeps it going. Think of when you strike a match – the friction releases energy and heat.
Fuel is necessary because without something to burn, you don’t have a fire. Think of any campfire you have ever been a part of. The wood is the fuel for the fire.
Oxygen is necessary for fire to start or continue. Without sufficient oxygen, the combustion process stops. Think of putting a glass over the top of a candle and watch it suffocate itself out.
In 1989, Billy Joel, the singer and song writer, released a song – We didn’t start the fire. Its lyrics include brief, rapid-fire allusions to more than 100 headline events between 1949, the year of his birth, and 1989, when the song was released. It encompasses the history of most of the Cold War era, although he never intended for the song to be that.
The chorus between some of the stanzas of events goes like this:
We didn’t start the fire. It was always burning since the world’s been turning. We didn’t start the fire. No we didn’t light it but we tried to fight it.
We didn’t start the fire that burns across the globe and especially here in the US right now. It just shows up in different places, with difference intensities. It consumes. In some cases, it destroys and it kills. Uncontrolled fire can do that. Fire that is chaotic and unrestrained is destructive fire. It will burn hot, take up any fuel that exists and suck the oxygen out in order to keep burning and it will never be satisfied.
Anger has often been associated with fire. And for good reason. The three ingredients of fire are present with anger too. Anger gives us a warm feeling that can be comforting in an odd way when we are really upset and is addicting for some people. Remember the last time you were angry – how did you feel? Did you feel the heat, the warmth inside you?
Anger feeds on the fuel of our emotions, consuming parts of us to the point that our whole being is consumed by anger, and we lose perspective and reason. When we see through the lens of anger, possibly getting to the point of rage – the fire is out of control.
And anger needs oxygen. The oxygen that comes through the breath. Anger is breathed out in words that are expressed. Some of those words are enough to cause a destructive spark – especially words that dehumanize and degrade others. Just look at recent pictures of men and women yelling at police offices – their faces full of rage and anger. The words we use to describe events and situations are fuel that adds to the fire. It doesn’t matter if you are talking about the protesters or riotous thugs in response to the death of George Floyd or the protestors or armed intimidators at state capitols demanding that their state reopen. The words we use to describe each group fan different sets of flames depending on whether you see either group as protestors or something else.
Leaving aside what we think of any of these protests. Large groupings of embers have been building up, the heat has been rising, and there has been plenty of oxygen available. All it’s taken is a small spark to get the fire going and burn out of control.
I don’t know about you, but I’m burning through a range of emotions right now. Multiple emotions over so many things. Emotions that I didn’t know could be grouped together. And honestly, I’m just tired of it all. My patience has worn thin, or is non-existant any longer. I don’t have answers. I don’t even know what to think anymore.
I don’t know what to think about the pandemic. 100,000 people have died. 100,000. Let that number sink in. And yet so many people seem more interested in debating about whether wearing a mask or not signifies some kind of allegiance to a political party? Really? 100,000 people are dead. Someone people tell me at what point partisanship will take a back seat to more important things? Please…
I don’t know what to think about the protests and/or riots – whatever you want to label them. Each day new cities are ablaze in protest. And I have to ask – do we assume that our own life experience is the norm by which we can judge others? Are we the measuring stick? if so, Why? We could at least be consistent in how we use that measuring stick – applying it just as equally to those we support and agree with, instead of finding convenient excuses for anything that doesn’t measure up. No, we aren’t the measuring stick – Jesus is. That’s what we signed up for when we started following Jesus. And as we know, Jesus is complicated. He preached and lived non-violence, and at the same time flipped tables in the temple destroying others’ property and disturbing the economic activity that was going on. People didn’t like it – remember he ended up dead a few days later. Was he rioting or was he trying to get people’s attention? Or both? Or something else entirely? I don’t know.
Are the protestors wasting an opportunity to bring people to together? Are there outsiders, either left or right wing paid whatevers masquerading as protestors to turn protests into something else, as has been reported? or was Martin Luther King Jr right when he said the following in 1968: “It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.” That’s what Martin Luther King, Jr. said in 1968. Is it still true today? Does it apply to this situation? I don’t know.
What I do know is that the Gospel was made for a time like this. It was made to be preached in the midst of chaos and crisis. Not because the gospel stops conflict as if it doesn’t exist. But because the Gospel is a fire – a different kind of fire – one that sheds its light on events.
You see, the gospel has been preached throughout our history, especially in times of crisis. The fire of the spirit provides a light for us to see the gospel clearly – to see Jesus clearly. The fire of the Spirit burns so we can feel it through our very being. The gospel was preached on Pentecost – we heard it. The Gospel isn’t something just to be heard though. Rather it is an encounter with the living God. The Gospel changes everything. Some didn’t like it. They ridiculed and rejected it. We heard that too.
The gospel was preached during the civil war, another time of crisis – pastors preaching against slavery and some didn’t like it. They said it was too political to preach against slavery. The founder of Gettysburg Seminary, Samuel Simon Schmucker, vehemently attacked slavery, calling it a national sin. He exclaimed:
“As a patriot and a Christian, I feel bound to bear my testimony against the unjust laws relating to our despised and often oppressed colored population. . . . some of the laws on this subject are direct violations of the laws of God. . . . Until we have used our utmost efforts to purify our own statute book . . . we must stand guilty at the bar of heaven of participation in this sin.”
You see, we didn’t start the fire. It was always burning since the world’s been turning. We didn’t start the fire, no we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it.
But did we? Are we? Or did we just throw more fuel and heat and oxygen on the fire as a society? I don’t know. And I don’t know what kind of fire extinguisher we need to use to put it out? Or even if we should? I just don’t have any idea.
Fire can be destructive and deadly if it is out of control. It’s always been that way.
Pentecost, or Shavuot in Hebrew, was a pilgrim festival that attracted large numbers of Jews to Jerusalem, just as we heard in the Acts passage. It was an agricultural commemoration – the offering of the First Fruits of the wheat harvest, that later became a commemoration of God giving Moses the 10 Commandments. The instructions for celebrating this festival from Deuteronomy were clear: “When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground…and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for this name (The Temple).”
Political struggles entered into this festival, too. Josephus recounts that after 4 BCE, fighting and riots broke out in Jerusalem between Jews and Romans when the Roman procurator (The senior financial officer) wanted to seize some of Herod’s treasure, which the Jews felt by rights belonged to them. The net result was a large loss of life on both sides.
We didn’t start the fire. It’s always been burning since the world’s been turning.
Do you hear what’s underneath the Shavuot, or Pentecost, gathering in Acts? Can you imagine the emotions that welled up in so many of the gathered Jews who were celebrating this festival telling them about the land given to them to possess and when they look around, it is Rome that possess it? The words and the reality did not match up. This Pentecost had all the ingredients necessary for an uncontrollable fire. The heat of an unjust execution of Jesus 53 days beforehand burning within many gathered. Fuel of the recent history of Jerusalem which experienced riots and multiple attempts to overthrow the Romans. And oxygen – words that could very easily feed the fire of deadly revolt that had happened so often. But instead of a spark that sets off an uncontrollable fire, they are encountered by the Spirit which sets off a different kind of fire. A holy fire.
This fire burns away things and ideas that have no life in them. It burns away things and beliefs that have no value and add nothing to the Kingdom of God. It burns these away in order to make room for new life. To make room for the Kingdom of God.
We see this flame in the Pascal candle. Representing Jesus. And while trite sayings about God are nice and pleasant in good times, they are not helpful in times of crisis. We are a world on fire. We don’t need trite niceness. We need God as fire – not an uncontrolled fire that consumes and destroys. But a fire that cleanses and makes all things new.
Today we hear about God as fire. Jesus breaths on the disciples gathered in the Gospel. It’s oxygen. And in Jesus’ breath the disciples and us receive the Holy Spirit. Jesus says the words we need to hear – Peace be with you. Not a peace that is weak, that avoids conflict and difficult situations. Jesus doesn’t offer that – remember in this Gospel it was just a few days before that Jesus was executed – an innocent man was executed because he was a threat to the comfortable established order that exploited and oppressed people. That’s why the disciples were hiding in a locked room out of fear – they thought they were next. Jesus spoke words that offered peace to them and then he breathed on them the Spirit. Peace is a way of living and being. A controlled fire that clears injustice and oppression away. There is no peace, real peace, without justice.
Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians tells us of the fuel that God uses – we are one body, many members. We are embers that burn. And we burn in different ways as the Spirit blesses us. We are part of God’s controlled fire that sweeps through God’s creation. We are invited to participate in the unfolding of the Kingdom of God – a fire that clears away the brush of old sins that bring no life to anyone.
We hear of heat. Heat that comes forth from the Psalm and tells us that you Lord look at the earth and it trembles; you touch the mountains and they smoke. That’s how much heat you have Lord. But it is not a heat of angry fire. Rather it is the heat of your endless love that you have for creation. A fire that cannot be extinguished. A fire that keeps burning in spite of our efforts to turn away from you in sin. Thank you God for that fire – burn away our desire to turn inward on ourselves in sin. Light a fire in us Lord that would transform us.
And Acts – it’s the spark. It’s what takes what has always been present all along and lights it on fire. It takes the elements that have always been there and sets them on fire to carry out God’s flame. Not as chaotic uncontrolled fire, but rather what God has always been – bringing order out of chaos, moving the world towards the kingdom of God, towards shalom wholeness.
Borders and boundaries that humanity has used to separate and divide are burned away because they have no life in them. The fire of the Spirit comes and burns away all things that do not give life. The fire of God melts everything and everyone together. And yes, there is opposition – those who don’t accept what is happening. They ridicule and taunt because what this fire of the Spirit means is that their uncontrollable fire of wanting to in control will be put out. And yet, the Spirit doesn’t care, it just does its work anyway. Those in opposition don’t get to determine what God will do. And yet, they are still invited to participate – not to be consumed in anger and destroyed. Because that is what God is about – always inviting, always expanding the kingdom, always moving us towards shalom, always burning away the deadwood so we can see the image of God in others.
When I look around at the world right now, I see it on fire – burning uncontrollably and with more heat, fuel, and oxygen being added all the time. And I don’t know what to do or to say. I have a range of emotions that burn through me. And in spite of all of that, on this Pentecost, Today, right now, the fire of the Spirit burns. Maybe we don’t hear the sound the rush of the violent wind or see tongues as of fire over each other, but today is Pentecost.
The Spirit is here – it’s there where you are. The fire of the Spirit burns. The fire of the Spirit is out in this world. It shows up to comfort and warm those who are afflicted and are mourning the loss of a loved ones who die due to the virus or racism or anything else. It shows up to heat the food that is given to so many who are struggling to survive due to loss of income and employment. It shows up in groups that clean up riots – burning away the debris. It shows up in our worship – burning away our sins in order to make room for God and what God has planned for us. The Spirit sets us on fire, ready to go out and proclaim a bold message – that the fire of God burns – a cleansing fire, a renewing fire, a fire that gives life. May the Spirit transform us into the breath that provides the fire of mercy and forgiveness. May the Spirit transform us into the fuel that serves our neighbors, that loves our enemies, and that opens our eyes to see the image of God in all. And may the Spirit transform us into the heat that calls us to love – to love in an unquenchable way, like a fire that cannot be stopped.
We didn’t start the fire. It’s always been burning, since the world’s been turning. We didn’t start the fire – God did. A holy fire. Pentecost is the spark that got it going. And we have been transformed by God to be the heat, the fuel, and the oxygen. Let the Spirit burn within us. Amen.