Friday, March 7, 2014

Fire and Rain

Sermon preached March 2, 2014

Texts: Exodus 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9

            James Taylor, “Fire and Rain”
            Fire and rain, when sung by James Taylor, the words are woven into a song that is beautifully poignant.  In our Scripture readings for this morning, fire and rain and clouds, well, it is all a little strange.
            Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain.  The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day [God] called to Moses out of the cloud.  Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.  Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain.
            Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James, and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.  And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone lie the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.  Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.
            Clouds and fire and rain and dazzling white.  It all seems just a little odd, a little out there.  Grammatically, the stories are “out there.”  They are third person accounts.  This is what happened to those people.  I want to suggest this morning that the importance of these stories is trying to move them from the third person to the first person, from out there to in here – both individually and communally.  James Taylor sings, “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain.”  But this morning the question to us is posed in another song, “I wanna know, have you ever seen rain?” (John Fogerty, Credence Clearwater Revival)  In other words, what is your experience of God.
            These passages suggest that we can experience God as fire and as rain.  God as fire – God as a burning passion in our lives, a yearning for goodness, for holiness which is healthy wholeness, for a better world – more just, more peaceful, kinder, gentler.  God as fire – illuminating our hearts, souls, minds, helping us see more deeply and clearly, helping us see both the beauty of the world more clearly, and the suffering in the world more clearly.  Do you know something of this God as fire in your own life, this “fire of love in our flesh and our bones” in the words of one of our songs (“Gather Us In”).
            God as rain – God as healing rain, for rain heals – it heals the earth.  God as rain - cleansing, washing, as in the waters of baptism.  God as rain, refreshing, like a cool drink on a warm day.  Do you know something of this God as rain, as “healing rain coming down… bringing mercy” in the words of another song we sing here (“Healing Rain”).
            The first part of this week I was in Nashville.  I am part of a team appointed by the last General Conference of The United Methodist Church to explore and make recommendations about certain parts of our understanding of and processes for ordained ministry.  It is called the Ministry Study Commission.  We are working on a report and perhaps some legislation for the next General Conference.  We may suggest some helpful things to the church, but among some of us, anyway, there is a strong sense that what our denomination most needs will not come through legislation, though there are some needs there for sure, but what we most need is something deeper, something more of these experiences of God as fire and rain, as passion for the world, as healing rain.  It is not an either/or – organization or experience, but without the inner experience, without helping each other know God more deeply, the organizational stuff loses its meaning.
            A few months ago, the Church Council presented to the congregation a “Membership Covenant.”  It represents a lot of good thinking and good work.  Used well, it can be helpful to us as a church, as a community of followers of Jesus.  The covenant encourages us to think about our mutual expectations and how to live together in certain ways.  The covenant talks about loving in the spirit of Jesus.  It talks about sharing our time, money, skills and other resources.  It talks about being an intentionally welcoming community.  It encourages regular worship together.  It invites us to continue growing in our faith and suggests spiritual disciplines or practices for doing so.  It asks that we pray for our church.
            This is all really good stuff.  Underlying it all, though, is a desire for each of us to connect more deeply with God, with this God who passionately loves us and loves the world, a fire of love which we desire in our flesh and our bones, with this God who is a healing rain, coming down to heal our lives and heal the world.  While our covenant can strengthen us as a church, it also needs to help us experience this God of fire and rain more deeply, because in the end, that’s what church is about – knowing and experiencing this God so that our lives are changed, made more whole, directed to changing the world.
            Theologian Marcus Borg says that at the heart of Christianity is this connection with God.  The risen Christ journeys with us whether we know it or not.  Yet there are moments when we do become aware of his presence. (Jesus at 2000, 17).  Diana Butler Bass argues something similar. She writes that Christian worship should help “open people to experiencing… awe, wonder” (Christianity for the Rest of Us, 173).  She goes on.  Hospitality, beauty, celebration.  Awe, wonder, mystery.  Communities making merry.  For too long, mainline Protestants equated worship with thinking about God.  Now, in at least some places, their hearts – the whole capacity of being human – are learning to experience God. (178)
            I want to be clear this morning.  It matters what we do.  Moses came down out of the clouds with a lot of instructions for how to live life in response to God.  Peter, James and John still had miles to go with Jesus.  It matters that we feed the hungry, clothe the ill-clad, befriend the friendless, work to heal the sick, seek justice, pursue freedom, accompany the sorrowful.  It matters that we do these things.  It matters that we show up, like on Sunday morning, for our own good and for others.  All that matters.  Good works are… necessary to faith working through love….  Faith inevitably finds expression in the witness of faith (Schubert Ogden, The Understanding of Christian Faith, 126)

            But what sustains us when the road is rough and life is hard?  Where do we find healing along the way for our lives?  What is our “why” for doing justice, loving kindness, seeking peace and reconciliation?  We want and need to encounter this God who is fire and rain again and again and again.  That’s the invitation today.  Amen.

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