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Lives That Catch Fire

24 May

spirit(a sermon for May 24, 2015, Pentecost Sunday, based on Acts 2:1-21, 42-47)

In a word, Pentecost is anarchy.

Truly, of all the Christian celebrations we observe throughout the year, the Day of Pentecost has been the hardest for us to tame.  Think about this: at Christmas we supplement and soften the news of God’s coming into the world with the exchange of gifts and a barrage of holiday sentiment.  At Easter, we respond to resurrection glory by decking the church with lilies and spring flowers, and ourselves with new clothes.  Even during the seasons of Advent and Lent, we have our regular traditions:  we do pageants, we plan holiday fairs, we light candles and we decorate, all of which is very good and holds great meaning; but do you see what can happen in the process?  All too often we end up taking these great “festival days” of the faith and create a normal, comfortable routine out of something that is meant to be a celebration of God doing something radically new and different in the world!

Pentecost, however, which is our celebration of God’s gift of the Holy Spirit, doesn’t seem to lend itself to that kind of taming!  When was the last time, for instance, that we hung a Pentecost wreath on the front door; or gathered the children for their annual Sunday School Pentecostal Pageant?  For that matter, I don’t recall seeing any commercials or flyers in the paper this week for pre-Pentecost or “Red Friday” sales at Target!  Alas, the Day of Pentecost just doesn’t seem to fit easily into the way we like to do things in this world or in the church; and truth be told, historically speaking we really don’t have that much to go on!

There was a tradition from years ago in central Europe, where it was often the custom on the Day of Pentecost to drop burning pieces of wick or straw through an open hole in the ceiling of the church; this to represent the “tongues, as of fire” spoken of in our scripture today, the Spirit of God descending upon believers.  That practice, however, never stood the test of time; because as you might have guessed, what happened is that as these tongues of fire “came to rest,” fixtures, church buildings and sometimes even people tended to go up in flame, and not as a result of the Holy Spirit!

No, aside from the red vestments that symbolize those tongues of fire and perhaps a shift in the liturgy we use, there really isn’t much that’s all that different about our worship today.  And really, friends,  that’s a shame; because Pentecost is in fact one of the quintessential spiritual moments of the church’s life, and I dare say a pivotal point in the history of the world; it is that time in which God’s own Spirit came down to create something new, radical and different amongst his people, doing that which by any estimation would seem impossible: bringing the good news of Christ to a city filled with diverse people from “every nation under heaven;” what’s more, making that good news understood to each in their own language; and further, uniting those people in a common faith, a common vision, and a common purpose!

Pentecost, you see, is no less than the reality of the living and vital presence of the divine blowing into the midst of history; our history, yours and mine.  This is about God stepping right into the middle of our lives with mystery and wonder; shaking us up and transforming the world by the rush of a mighty wind.  So Pentecost cannot ever be tamed by our traditions and routine, because God won’t be contained within the usual standards of human life and living!

What we remember this morning, friends, is a truly “super-natural” event that took place on the streets of Jerusalem on a day much like this one nearly two millennia ago; a “happening” that set in motion the growth of a Spirit-led and Christ-centered church.  But what we celebrate on this day of Pentecost is that it’s an event still happening, time and time again, in the lives of all those have been touched and healed and pushed by the rush of that divine Spirit.  We rejoice in the many times and ways God’s Spirit has come to us in such a way that our lives catch fire; how suddenly with that flame burning within us there was for us clarity of vision and purpose, a reason for being and living.  We give thanks in our worship that God has not stopped speaking, either to the church or to the world, but is indeed a living God; a God of power and grace and, yes, anarchy who even at this very moment is moving in and through our lives, filling the hearts of the faithful and kindling in them the fire of his love.

I’m reminded of a book we used to read to our children – quite literally hundreds of times (!) – when they were very, very young.  It was entitled, “More, More,” Said the Baby, written by a woman named Vera B. Williams; and it was this beautiful and simple little evocation of the affection shared between children and the adults who love them.  Actually, as I recall, the story was three little vignettes about these toddlers nicknamed “Little Guy,” “Little Pumpkin,” and “Little Bird;” and each vignette was a variation on the same theme:  “Little Pumpkin scoots away so fast, Little Pumpkin’s Grandma has to run like anything to catch that baby up!”  But that’s just what Grandma does.

I used to love reading that to our kids; and all these years later I’m realizing that this describes God to a T!  Here we have this wonderful image of the Divine running like anything into the regular routine of our lives just to “catch us up” in love along a new and directed pathway; setting us afire with faith and a new purpose for living, even as those around us react to what’s happening with bewilderment, skepticism and perhaps even some cynicism.

We certainly see that reflected in our second reading from the Book of Acts this morning, which is in effect an “afterward” of sorts to the story of God’s coming in the Holy Spirit; but which also serves as the beginning of this ongoing story we have of the growth of the early church, this gathered group of apostles who were doing “many wonders and signs” in the name of the Risen Christ. You know, as many times as I return to these passages of scripture I still stand amazed that not two months before the events depicted in our readings today, these very same disciples were… scattered; hiding out for fear of their very lives and doing anything but proclaiming the Lordship of Jesus Christ (!); and this is to say nothing of the fact that three years before that,  before Jesus called them to follow, this bunch was little more than this rather motley assortment of fishermen and tax collectors.  But now, here they were; preaching the word, healing the sick, “devoting themselves to… teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and… prayers… praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”  And, wonder of wonders, “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

So what was the difference between what they were “before” and what they were “after?”  Well, certainly, they’d been witnesses to the truth of Jesus’ resurrection; that had certainly changed them forever, and they’d heard their risen Lord’s “great commission” to them to spread the good news and to “make disciples of all nations;” (Matthew 28:20) and so they understood their calling and purpose of life.  But even with all of this, it took something more to give them the courage and the utter boldness it would take to bring an often resistant world into the circle of faith; and that came in the miraculous gift of God’s Holy Spirit.  It was in how, from the very moment that Spirit came into their house, each one of these disciples were “caught up” by God’s presence, his power and his love in everything that was to come.

That’s is how the church of which you and I are a part began; it’s how it has continued to grow, to thrive, to endure and to adapt over the centuries; and it is what will carry it even through these uncertain times in which we live.  For this is what happens as our Lord is relentless in pursuing those he loves; this is what happens when God’s own spirit moves and acts and welcomes and pushes and prods and encourages and comforts;  this is what happens when, because of all that, a spark ignites… and lives catch fire!

And so it is for you and me today.  The gift of Pentecost, friends, is that we also are infused with the power and presence of God that will transform our lives and the world along with it; and indeed, our prayer for this day is that each one of us will know beyond any shadow of a doubt the reality of that presence and power in our lives; to know and feel the Holy Spirit alive and moving within us.  For it’s that awareness that makes today, the future and all of life a true adventure!

There’s a Garfield cartoon from a few years back in which Odie the dog chases Garfield the cat up into a tree.  The two of them are resting side by side on a tree limb when Jon, their owner, comes by, sees them up there together, and says, “Odie, dogs can’t climb trees!”  Whereupon Garfield thinks, “It’s amazing what one can accomplish when one doesn’t know what one can’t do.”

Friends, there’s great wisdom for us there!  Especially in these days when the conventional wisdom would deem to dismiss Christianity as something on the decline, now more than ever we Christians need to be “out on a limb,” so to speak; ever and always seeking those right and ripe moments when those incredible “possibilities” that God sets before us can come to pass, when what we say and do by faith makes a real difference in the world.  You and I need to be ready and willing to be “caught up” by the Spirit of God, letting our lives catch fire so that we might accomplish that which previously we didn’t know we weren’t supposed to be able to do (!), but then did so anyway, because we were moved by faith and joy and love, and the desire to live as Christ would have us!

You see, you never know how the Spirit will move; sometimes it is like rush of a mighty wind; other times it blows as gently and almost imperceptivity as a quiet summer breeze.  Likewise, there are moments when God catches us up in the manner of a loving, protective parent; but then there will be also be times when God  will give us a kick in the pants, spiritually speaking, so to get us moving out of our own sense of complacency or fear.  Sometimes the Spirit will come to us in ways that are intensely personal, with a clarity and purpose that only we can truly comprehend; but at other times it becomes just as clear that the Spirit intends for us to be led as a community; for after all, what’s a church for if not to walk, together, by faith?

And truth be told, friends, sometimes the Spirit moves, and we won’t have a clue as to what’s happening, or why (!), at least not at that moment; sometimes all we’ll have to go on is that God’s leading us somewhere, and that we need to go!  Because after all, ultimately it’s not up to us how the Spirit moves, it’s up to God; as Jesus was quick to point out to Nicodemus in John’s gospel, the wind blows where it chooses, and so it is with the Spirit.  But the point is when God’s Spirit moves – wherever it moves – incredible, glorious, life-changing and life-giving things can happen: to you and to me, to the world around us, and with the church, the Body of Christ, of which we’re a part.  The only real question is what we’ll be doing about that.

Where do you suppose the wind is going to blow next, beloved?  How will God’s Spirit seek to move us as persons and as a people in the days and weeks to come?  What does that mean for us, for our families, for this church?  Who knows for sure; understand me when I say that that’s all part of the mystery, wonder, and the joy of our discipleship.  I just hope and pray that as the Spirit moves, we’ll let ourselves be moved along with it; perchance to have our lives catch fire for the sake of Jesus Christ… and won’t that be a thing to experience!

Come, Holy Spirit, Come… and may our thanks be to God.

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2015  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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