“You’re on Fire!”
The Rev. Zachary S. Sasser
Chester Presbyterian Church
Day of Pentecost, Year B
June 4, 2006
Coming up with a sermon title is always an interesting task for me, especially since I usually have to submit a title before I actually write the sermon. I do, of course do a preliminary study of the text, but there are some weird societal expectations that often come to bear. I tend to feel like a sermon title should be some combination of a sticking point to take home with you and mull over and an advertising slogan that makes a person want to figure out what you are talking about. My hope is that you will not soon forget today’s title or the gospel it proclaims, as it has special significance to me.
“You’re on fire!” came from a restaurant I used to work in. Every server (which is what I did there, I was a waiter) had a station of three or four tables that he or she was primarily responsible for, but every server was also responsible for every customer they walked by. You did not walk past a dirty dish without picking it up unless your hands were full. You did not walk by a table that had not been greeted without taking a drink order and seeing that it got to them. If two or more were gathered at the dish pit, one of them would take the responsibility of scraping dishes so that the other could wash their hands and take clean dishes to the cooks. You were never idle. It was high energy! We worked our tails off, and it was fun! We had a code language that helped us get things done with minimal confusion, and the most prized comment of all was, “You are on fire!” That meant, “I can be better at who I am because you are who you are.” Though there were a variety of faiths represented in that place, the attitude exists for me today as a model for the Holy, Pentecostal, and Apostolic church.
One more notion of being “on fire” that I want to share with you today, before we get down to the preachin’ as they say, comes from a song called “Kid Fears” from the early 90’s by a band called the Indigo Girls. In this song they lace harmonies around questions about what we wouldn’t give to be released from the fears that haunt us from childhood, the things done to us and the mistakes we make. The question they ask is, “Are you on fire from the years?” I think they are asking if we are more motivated by our pain or by the potential for joy. I think it suggests being “on fire” can just as easily mean that you are consumed by your pain as it can mean that you are a force of beauty because of who you are and how you relate to others. Right now, in this space today I am claiming the first example for all of us here. When you leave this place it is up to you to determine why and how you burn. But we are here today because of our relationship to God and to each other. And you, my friends, are on fire!
Now let’s talk a little about Pentecostal fire. My reaction to the term Pentecostal is tied up in my own baggage regarding the “Pentecostal” movements in modern Christianity. Most of these are relatively new and are often associated with fits of frenzy and wild speech that are supposed to be indicators that the Holy Spirit is present. On the surface it might seem that there is precedent for this in the Acts passage, but I think a deeper look says that this was actually quite an orderly affair in which people heard clearly what God had to say to them. Perhaps it is out of order for the day, but it is not out of order for God’s will. So, when we talk of the church needing to be more “Pentecostal” we are simply saying that we need to be more in tune with God’s Spirit.
Rick Ufford-Chase, the current moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) was quoted a few months ago in the Richmond Times-Dispatch as having said, “We have to live mission rather than go one week a year. Are we willing to become God's truly Pentecostal multi-cultural church? Classism in our churches makes it uncomfortable to welcome new immigrants. I ask people: 'What makes your church special?' The number one answer is: 'We are very friendly.' Forgive me, friends. If we are so friendly, why are we a dying church? Jesus calls us to be friendly with those no one wants to be friendly with in our community (1).”
I gotta tell you, If Rick were here I think we could safely say, “We get it.” Maybe our membership is majority white, but guess what... We have a tutoring program that parents throughout the community wait in line to get their kids into because they know that we are committed Christians who change children’s lives. We turn ourselves into a homeless shelter two weeks out of the year. We support transitional housing through Freedom House. We build houses through Habitat for Humanity. We send our youth all over the world to do mission work and our Mid Highs are working with other congregations right here in Richmond. We have a beautiful class of confirmands who have been waiting all year for this day just so they can become members of the church. We are electing a youth as an elder and a youth as a deacon. The list goes on and on... so let me tell you people, you are on fire! In fact our mission committee has a vision that every single member participate, even if only in prayer, in at least one project this year.
So why on earth do we need to hear about the dry bones today? Well I guess it is a way to keep us in check. I guess it’s a call to look at ourselves and ask how we are connected and animated. It occurs to me that one of the weaknesses in our congregation is that those who are involved beyond attending worship are much more connected than those who are not. Really that’s no different from most churches. But the real problem is that sometimes we end up feeling like we are in the valley of dry bones and have no one to turn to. Maybe some one here has had that feeling, the feeling like you are not really alive. Feeling like you aren’t sure where your next breath will come from or if you care. The feeling of being let down by someone you trusted or of letting someone down who trusted you. In this imperfect world we are each guaranteed to experience hardship. And even in our work as a congregation those who are involved sometimes feel like they are the only ones who get it. In our community there are of course areas that we do not discuss or interact with like the poverty that exists down the street, the growing Hispanic community in our midst, the reality of war and our position in the global infrastructure, the division in our denomination over issues such as homosexuality, and even our own General Assembly’s call for conversation and prayer to protect the peace, unity, and purity of the church.
Yes, friends the valley is here, too. So take a second and listen for God’s breath. Did you hear it? I did. It sounded like your neighbor breathing, but I know that it came from God. Take a deep breath and know that God loves you. Remember not to beat yourself up over the things not yet accomplished because it’s not about what we have not done. According to the scripture it is about what God will do.
The reality of Pentecost is that God’s activity has come into the world at a time when God’s chosen people were celebrating and thanking God for their harvest (2). This is a sign of the need to gather what has been sown because the end has come! And for us today we need only to know that regardless of any other ideas about the end of days, we need only know that our end... our identity... our purpose for living... is found in Christ Jesus. The world as know it ends where our faith in Christ begins.
Sons and daughters, women and slaves, these were the ones who were powerless in ancient Israel. To the powerless is given the task of speaking God’s word to telling us how things are and how they should be. Men, young and old, these were the folks who had the power to make decisions and determine their own fate and that of others. To the powerful is given the task of putting God’s word into action.
Now this is the part where we have to ask ourselves if we really want the gift of the Spirit. In the “glorious day of the coming of the Lord” things get messed up. Things follow the order of God rather than the will of a people. Things like borders and boundaries get crossed in favor of care for the needy. National priorities have to be set aside for Kingdom living. And the structures we build to provide order get challenged and broken when they limit people instead of empowering them. But don’t worry. It’s not all gloom and doom. The Spirit of God is in the business of building people up into a community (3). And when I look at this community, I see a Pentecostal vision of people who are on fire for God’s will!
This Pentecostal vision requires us to let go of what we want God to be and open ourselves up to who God is. It gives us an image of what the church is and what our role as individuals might be. It turns the tables of power and reminds us that the end of the world as we know it is only the beginning of something bigger. That “something bigger” is the opportunity to see God’s activity and to know where God is pushing us to go. It is the opportunity to understand the nature of God and our relatedness to God through our relationships with others and with all of creation. It is the ability to live like every morning of every day is a new day dawning in the land of our true citizenship, that being the Kingdom of God.
So, old men and women, dream your dreams. Young men and women, follow your visions. Listen to the prophetic call of those who are despised, those who are poor, those who speak the word of God that we do not want to hear. For in them is our salvation known. There are no dry bones here, for if you walked in that way you can not walk the same unless you have been holding your breath today. The Spirit of the Living God has fallen on all flesh, and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. Halleluiah! Amen!
(1) Richmond Times Dispatch article on Rick Ufford-Chase
(2) Lehman Strauss , Litt.D., F.R.G.S., The Pentecostal Experience - A Study in Acts 2 (3) Mark Harris, Living by the word: fire in the dark Christian Century, May 3, 2005
SOURCES OF INSPIRATION (BEYOND SCRIPTURE)
(1) Text Week: Acts 2:1-21
(2) Dr. Ralph F. Wilson, Understanding the Gift of Prophecy
(3) Text Week: Ezekiel 37:1-14