Sermon Preached June 12, 2011
Texts: John 7:37-39; Acts 2:1-21
Look! He’s not wearing a tie, not even a dress shirt. Sure he’s trying to cover it up with that sport coat, but we know. We can see. I guess now that the bishop has appointed him as our pastor for a seventh year he’s getting a bit careless, a bit too relaxed. What’s next? Is this church?
And is this a sermon if I read from a book? Robert Fulgham, It Was Fire When I Lay Down on It: A tabloid newspaper carried the story, stating simply that a small-town emergency squad was summoned to a house where smoke was pouring from an upstairs window. The crew broke in and found a man in a smoldering bed. After the man was rescued and the mattress doused, the obvious question was asked: “How did this happen?” “I don’t know. It was fire when I lay down on it.”
The story stuck like a bur to my mental socks…. It was fire when I lay down on it. A lot of us could settle for that on our tombstones. A life-story in a sentence. Out of the frying pan and into the hot water. I was looking for trouble and got into it as soon as I found it. The devil made me do it the first time, and after that I did it on my own. (3-4)
Life can be like that sometimes. Out of the frying pan and into the hot water. It was fire when I lay down on it. From the wind into the whirlwind. The doctor comes back into the examination room with a serious look on her face. Your boss comes to your desk and begins by talking about a down turn in the economy. Your spouse begins a conversation with, “I’m not sure about my feelings.” You find that you owe more on your house than it is worth. A bill arrives for $300 and you have $150 in your checkbook. A child is in a pickle, a parent in a predicament. The nightly news is like a nightmare. It was fire when I lay down on it.
Life can be like that, and maybe we have all had moments where it is – only moments if we are fortunate. We look to God, church, faith as a place of comfort and safety and care – a shelter in the storm, dry land in the flood of life, a rock in a weary land. On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand. And grace my fears relieved. Jesus cries out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me” (John 7:37).
There is truth here. Today we are, among other things, celebrating the work of The First United Methodist Church Foundation. It is like an endowment fund for our church, helping provide a more solid financial foundation for us. And we like to think of our church as a foundation for our lives – steady, solid. And so it is. After the wild ride of the crucifixion and the resurrection and Jesus leaving again, we find the disciples “all together in one place.”
But to see the church as a place of safety and our faith as a comfort is to see only in part. The church should always be a place where we are safe from harm, but not “safe” from being challenged. Our faith should comfort us in our afflictions, but when we are comfortable, our faith sometimes needs to move us. God the Spirit is a warm, gentle breeze, and also the rush of a mighty wind.
God the Spirit rushes, gushes, sweeps through, shakes, rattles and rolls. 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…. All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
God the Spirit comes as fire, burning hot and bright, but not consuming.
“Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” Now Jesus said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive.
God the Spirit comes as water, water that flows and overflows, living, flowing, rushing water that smooths rough places, carves channels for love and grace, flows through us to the world.
God as fire. God as water. A paradoxical combination. Water douses fire. But to grasp something of the God we worship, we need to learn to live with paradoxes and polarities. The God who loves us enough to comfort us loves us enough to shake us up and move us. With God, fire and water become firewater, new wine. In The Cotton Patch Version of Acts 2:13 reads “They’re tanked up on white lightening.” With God the waters of baptism become living waters flowing, overflowing, rushing. The waters of baptism become a kind of firewater, new wine, white lightening.
The God who loves us enough to comfort us loves us enough to shake us up and move us. I think of the description of Aslan, the Christ character in C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia: Is he safe? Of course he’s not safe; but he’s good. God’s goodness can be safety in the storm, but also a storm when we have made life too safe by narrowing our thinking, by closing our perception, by limiting our love. Robert Fulgham had a colleague who complained that he had the same darn thing in his lunch day after day after day. “So who makes your lunch?” I asked. “I do,” says he. (It Was Fire When I Lay Down on It, 4) Sometimes the safety and familiarity of our usual ways of being in the world, of seeing the world, need to be shaken up, rattled, because they are no longer life giving for us or for the world.
I mentioned before that this is a day when we are celebrating our Foundation, and saying thanks, in particular, to some who helped get that foundation going. All this talk about the Spirit as rushing wind and living water and firewater seems an odd choice. We want foundations to be staid, steady, stable, rock solid. We want our Foundation to be that for the church and we want the church to be that for our lives. But if we are to really get to know the God of Jesus Christ more deeply and live the Jesus way more fully, we need to become more comfortable with paradox and some new images. Foundations provide stability and solidity, but perhaps they can also be launching pads. We want our church to be solid and we want it to launch us – launch us more deeply into our souls and more widely into the world with outreaching love.
God the Spirit rushes, gushes, sweeps through, shakes, rattles and rolls. The God who loves us enough to comfort us loves us enough to shake us up and move us. I think about my own life – a quiet, shy kid for whom public speaking was something of a terror and being out front a guarantor of anxiety, now speaking publically all the time and leading even in national church organizations. I think of John Wesley, fearfully traveling back to England after a less-than-successful US mission, being encouraged to preach faith until he had it – later finding his heart strangely warmed. I think of Wesley the conventional church priest, being pushed to preaching in the fields outside the mines to reach people who would not normally show up in a church. I think of Martin Luther King, Jr., fresh from his Ph. D. at Boston University hired at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama because the previous pastor had been too controversial and too prophetic, then becoming the leader of the Montgomery bus boycott.
God as Spirit is sympathy and warmth, comfort and care. God as Spirit is fire, living water, fire water, white lightening, new wine. Theologian Dorothee Soelle in her book Theology for Skeptics writes this: God does not come with cheap consolation, like a comforting lollipop from heaven…. God does not want to pacify us but to encourage us so that we may share in God’s power…. No man is too small or too large, no woman is too young or too old, too educated or too ignorant. God has given all of us a part, God comforts us, and we prepare God’s way. God’s voice calls to us and we answer. God’s spirit wants to make us courageous and capable of truth. God wants to be born in us. (125, 126)
Our lives in God’s Spirit are carried in the flow of living water. Our lives in God’s Spirit are burning as with fire. God’s Spirit sweeps in us and through us to be born into the world. On this solid foundation we build our wind-swept lives. Amen.