Friday, June 17, 2011

You’re on Fire!

First Presbyterian Church – Lafayette, Louisiana
Day of Pentecost, Year A
June 5, 2011
Scripture:
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Acts 2:1-42 (Performed as a readers theater - written by The Rev. Eric Beene and used with permission.)

"You're on fire!" is a phrase that I use every now and then. It comes 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 before checking to see if there was food to go out.  If there was food to go out you took it, whether it was for your table or not.  You were never idle.  It was high energy!  We worked hard, 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 being who I am because you are who you are."  Though there were a variety of faiths represented in that place, that attitude exists for me today as a model for the Holy, Pentecostal, and Apostolic church.

Another notion of being "on fire" that I occasionally think of comes from a song called Kid Fears by 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 the question they are asking is about motivation.  They seem to be asking if you are more motivated by your pain or by your potential for joy?  I think it suggests that 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 want you to know that I see you as a force of beauty because of who you are and how you relate to others.  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 with God and with 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 was out of order for what they expected to hear, but it was 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 is someone who exemplifies the Pentecostal approach I am describing. He is an Elder and an advocate for peace.  He has served in a variety of ministry positions ranging from developing border ministries in Arizona to accompanying civilians in areas torn by violence.  In 2004 Rick was the moderator of the 216th meeting of the General Assembly of the PC(USA) in Richmond, VA.  The Moderator's position exists for two purposes. The first is to ensure a faithful process for decision-making.  The second is to become somewhat of an ambassador for the church, helping congregations and governing bodies to discern the will of God in light of the decisions made at General Assembly.

During that time he was quoted 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."

Those are some harsh words, and there is some truth to them. Yet this is a congregation that "get's it." We have a rich history of involvement in the community. We care deeply and actively for our members. We support programs like Meals on Wheels and CUPS that extend beyond our reach, because we are not afraid to ask for help from other congregations – even those in other denominations. This is a congregation that supports the Wesley Student Union, is active in Presbytery, and shares an ongoing relationship with organizations like Family Promise and the United Christian Outreach. We are a generous congregation, participating in more special and denominational offerings than some congregations that are many times our size. And need I remind you that jaws drop every time I tell people that this congregation with an average worship attendance of 60 people produced and distributed over 500 Christmas baskets and 300 Easter baskets to the needy?

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 not involved beyond attending worship are much less connected than those who are involved in leadership and other activities.  Really that's no different from most churches. The real problem is that, during times of crisis, we can 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.

Even in our work as a congregation there are those who are involved that can sometimes feel like they are "the only ones who get it."  Then again, the changes in our society can leave us feeling like we are not sure how to speak a word of hope and peace that others will hear in their own language.

Yes, friends the valley is here, too.  So take a second and listen for God's breath.  [Pause for a moment of silence.] 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 is doing.

The reality of Pentecost is that an awareness of God's activity came into the world at a time when God's chosen people were celebrating and thanking God for the harvest.  This passage, with all its apocalyptic glory, is a sign of the need to gather what has been sown because the end has come!  And 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 we know it – the world as we attempt to define 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 – 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 examined against the standard of Kingdom living rather than peace and prosperity for some in the midst of the pain of others.  And even the structures we build to provide order may get challenged and broken if they are found to 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.  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 –
unless you have been holding your breath.  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!
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