A sermon preached on Pentecost at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
May 24, 2015
I read and preach these texts every year. They are some of my favorite passages of scripture. And just when I think I understand them, and that I’ve got them figured out, the Holy Spirit starts a fire and shows me something new.
What occurred to me is that tongues of fire are painful. They can burn.
I want the gifts of the Holy Spirit to be pleasant. To be comforting. I don’t want them to set my hair on fire.
How terrifying must the experience of Pentecost been? What would it be like to start speaking unfamiliar words you didn’t know you had in you?
Fire is painful and dangerous.
If we were being evacuated because of a fire, we would grab our loved ones and our pets, maybe a picture of our grandparents or something, and we would get out fast.
Would we miss our stuff if our houses or church burned down? You know we would.
But would we be grateful to be alive and have our family at our side. Eternally.
Because when a fire sweeps through, you forget about structures and things. You remember life.
So I’m wondering what it was that burned in the baptism of fire at Pentecost?
Was the Spirit setting fire to the things that were holding people back from hearing God’s message so they would be free to see the gift of life, particularly life abundant as members of God’s family?
What must it have felt like then? To be sitting in a room, 10 days after Jesus ascended into heaven, waiting for who knows what. But waiting, because that’s what Jesus had told you to do. And you’re stuck waiting with people you don’t know. And they don’t even speak your language. And they eat food that you are unfamiliar with and it leaves a bad aroma in the room.
And you’re getting tired. And cranky. And about to decide that the others can wait but you’ve got things to do and if Jesus were sending someone he would have done it by now.
Just as you’re about to start packing up your backpack, you feel this burning on your head, and whispers of flame down your back and arms. It is uncomfortable and seems inescapable. You look around and see fire by everyone else too.
You notice the noise. How did you not notice the noise before? It starts out as the sound of a jet engine, but you realize it is wind, and it is moving the flames from person to person.
And then there is silence and you still feel singed and smokey, but clearer some how. The flames have died down.
And people start talking.
And you understand each other.
Suddenly that guy with the weird accent who you wished had been sitting in another room is speaking your language, and what he says makes so much sense to you. You can’t remember why he used to bother you so much. You brush the ashes off his shoulders and give him a hug.
I wonder what the Spirit would set on fire today. I wonder, but I don’t know if I really want to know the answer.
Are there doctrines we hold more dearly than the people we meet?
What fire does the Spirit need to kindle so the doctrine of love will be stronger than the love of doctrine?
Are there things we have built or inherited that are getting in our way, keeping us from loving each other?
Does the way we read the Bible keep us from being kind to the people we meet?
What fire does the Spirit need to kindle so our love for our brothers and sisters, here and around the globe, will be stronger than our love of possessions, structures, and traditions?
Are there ideas we have about God, about our faith, about ourselves, that are getting in our way, that we need to let burn?
The history of the church is rife with stories of us getting it wrong, watching our mistakes burn down around us, leading us to new faithfulness and new life.
Looking at the state of American religion, it seems the Spirit has some things in mind that need to burn with pentecostal fire.
The fastest growing religious identity in our country is that of “none”, people who have no religious identity. Churches seek to do whatever it is that will bring the missing people back in the doors. And churches divide when they can’t agree on either the problem or the solution.
It feels as if everything we thought we knew about how to do and be church is burning down around us. It hurts. It blisters our souls and leaves embers of nostalgia and loss as we recognize we don’t have the magic formula to return things to the way they used to be.
After struggling with the pain of pentecostal fire this week, I’m beginning to see the fire as good news that prepares the way of new life. And I’m less worried about the upheaval around us as I see the smoldering ruins of American Christendom.
Because the Spirit never promised to make us comfortable.
She just promised to set us on fire to bring us to life.
I see life in so much of what you do here.
Your willingness to extend love and welcome is making a difference in this community.
I am thankful for your willingness to be bold in the way you follow God’s call in your lives.
But I am also thankful for your willingness to trust that new life is always there for us when we follow Jesus. No matter what burns down, we know there is still new life to come.
I think about our experiment with the Sabbath services. When we first tried it last summer, I know many of you were skeptical and not really sure that canceling Sunday worship one week a month was a good idea. But you went along with the crazy plan, and it is now an important part of our life together, bringing in new people each month, giving us new opportunities to interact with our neighborhood as they join us for food trucks in the parking lot after worship.
I wonder both what the Spirit might yet set on fire here AND what new life might stir through us, speaking languages we have never heard before and calling us to experience God in new ways.
Our other text this morning is Ezekiel’s prophesy of the dry bones. I read it and wonder if his vision is a moment after the Spirit has burned away what needed to go, but before the new life has arrived.
God speaks to us from the midst of the desolation. “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.”
Even when, especially when, we are at our emptiest, our most alone, our most lifeless, our most burned out, God speaks words of hope and of a future. And God breathes the Spirit into us.
That is my prayer for us today, here in this room, and it is my prayer for those of us who are not in this room—that God would breathe the divine spirit upon us so that what we see as dead and beyond hope of life might have life again.
“I will put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD.”
But, like the story in Acts, the Spirit breathes on the people who were there, to the community that had gathered.
And I can’t stop thinking of the people who have left Christianity over our hypocrisy and lamentably poor track record of sharing the Good News. I can’t stop thinking of the people who aren’t in this room, or another church somewhere else.
When the Spirit shows up in Acts, she first shows up to the faithful, to the people who come to church on Memorial Day weekend, to the disciples who were gathered. And it is after they had received the Spirit that it spread to the people who weren’t in the room.
Which means that we need to pay attention.
The time has past when we could keep our faith a personal, private matter. The time has past when we could stand silently by while people try to hijack the Good News of the Gospel with messages of hate and intolerance.
We have a story to tell. And it MUST. BE. TOLD.
We don’t have to be mean about it. We don’t have to meet judgment with judgment. But we can meet judgment with Love. We can offer a different view. We have to give people a better story to tell.
Not because we are concerned about people going to Hell. I’m fully confident that the God we worship and serve can work out the fate of people’s eternal souls without our help.
We need to give people a better story to help their lives now. We need to tell the story of how God has moved in our lives, how the community of the faithful has supported us through difficulty, and how we have seen new life where we expected to only see death.
We need to call on the Spirit to come and give all of us courage to speak.
It was a group of Galilean fishermen who first were set on fire by the Spirit. It was people like us.
And once they started using their voices to speak God’s deeds of power, then the Spirit spread to the rest of the people.
So friends, we need to start talking. We need to step up to the plate. Even if you feel like an ill equipped Galilean fisherman, God’s Spirit wants to use you to share the Good News. Because this world out there needs to hear your stories.
Is the Spirit inviting you to reach out to a friend, neighbor, or co-worker, inviting them to join us as we listen for where the Spirit is calling us to go next. Especially when you hear them saying that the church is full of hypocrites. The answer to that question is “Yes, it is. But we have a lot of fun together. We have potlucks! Come join us.”
Especially when you hear them say, “I gave up on church. Too many people who are only known for what they are against.”
Tell them, “come to church with me and I’ll show you a bunch of people who are for love, for peace, for welcome, and for grace.”
How is the Spirit calling you? As you enjoy the rest of this long weekend, listen for the rush of wind, get ready to catch fire, seek the understanding that is coming from an unexpected voice, and go tell who ever needs to hear it that we don’t have to live in a valley of dry bones. There is new life here.
I will leave you with this poem by Jan Richardson.
This Grace That Scorches Us
A Blessing for Pentecost Day
Here’s one thing
you must understand
about this blessing:
it is not
for you alone.
It is stubborn
do not even try
to lay hold of it
if you are by yourself,
thinking you can carry it
on your own.
To bear this blessing,
you must first take yourself
to a place where everyone
does not look like you
or think like you,
a place where they do not
believe precisely as you believe,
where their thoughts
and ideas and gestures
are not exact echoes
of your own.
Bring your sorrow. Bring your grief.
Bring your fear. Bring your weariness,
your pain, your disgust at how broken
the world is, how fractured,
by its fighting, its wars,
its hungers, its penchant for power,
its ceaseless repetition
of the history it refuses
to rise above.
I will not tell you
this blessing will fix all that.
But in the place
where you have gathered,
Lay aside your inability
to be surprised,
your resistance to what you
do not understand.
See then whether this blessing
turns to flame on your tongue,
sets you to speaking
what you cannot fathom
or opens your ear
to a language
beyond your imagining
that comes as a knowing
in your bones
in your heart
that tells you
this is the reason
we were made,
for this ache
that finally opens us,
for this struggle, this grace
that scorches us
toward one another
the blazing day.