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Pentecost Looks Like Fire

The following is the Pentecost sermon preached by Amy Yoder McGloughlin on 5.15.16.  It's based on Acts 2: 1-21.  

I’m constantly amazed at the ways that the church throughout the centuries has domesticated the Bible.  

Take the Creation story.  The story of the creation of the first people on earth is one of humans made from dirt and the hand of God, and this story of awe and beauty somewhere along the line was twisted into a story about gender power and gender roles.  And, in nearly every artistic rendering we see of this story, the first humans always look well groomed with the right sized leaves being placed just in the right spot.  Where’s the vulnerability? Where’s the mess?  Where’s the dirt out of which they were created?  

Or how about Jesus’ birth:  God became a vulnerable child in an infant Jesus, a strange unlikely answer to the cry of God’s suffering people.  This story has been turned into the cute little baby Jesus, whose cheeks we want to pinch.  

Even Jesus’ stories and words--which are the most counter-cultural things you’ll read-- have become a model of piety for the church, when they were anything but that.  

Jesus violent death at the hands of the empire, has been deformed into a personal Jesus, dying on the cross for you.  And don’t you forget it.  

And Jesus’ resurrection has come to represent this pristine, perfect, and spiritual act.  When it was anything but that.  It was defiance, against death, against everything that tried to kill goodness and love.  It was big and unexpected, and we still don’t know what to do with it.  

Likewise, the church has domesticated the wildness of pentecost fire.  We have turned dangerous fire into a carefully encased candle, a gentle flame dancing daintily over the heads of awaiting disciples.  Even the lovely rendering of fire behind me is tame, although let me assure you, taking down the cross that has been up, and putting up the pentecost fire was about as wild and harrowing an experience as I’ve had in a while.

What happens when we domesticate the scripture?   It turns our scripture into a nice story, rather than a dangerous one, a pretty metaphor, rather than an event of utter destruction, where new things arose from the ashes.

And honestly, domesticating the story makes it more difficult to relate to.  How many of you have perfect lives?  If you raise your hand, I don’t believe you for a second.  So, why, why, why does the church keep trying to impose perfection onto this book.  

Every good and perfect thing that happened in this book comes from mess.  Jesus birth--a mess.  It didn’t happen where it was supposed to happen, and the mother was not who we imagined she should be.  Jesus was not the royal messiah the people hoped for, he didn’t deliver the message they wanted, he didn’t live and he certainly didn’t die the way they hoped.  

The Pentecost story is read as if the tornado and flames in the room is tame and fanciful, like something magical and enchanting from a Harry Potter book.  But, Pentecost was anything but that.  

Folks, the church was born amidst terrifying wind and fire that filled a room.  It was not organized and pretty, as we also see documented in art.  It was a tremendous mess that took the disciples breath away.  And as a result of this weather event in a room--the disciples were compelled to leave the fear behind, the fear that brought them into that room to hide.  After the fire and wind, the fear was gone, and they couldn’t help but be in the streets.  

Fire and wind are a dangerous mix.  Wind causes the fire to spread.  Wind makes the fire hot.  And when fire comes, it destroys everything.  Some of you who have experienced the power of fire know this all too well.  Fire is traumatic, life threatening.  

Beyonce’s new album came out a few weeks ago, and it it one of the most incredible pieces of musical art I’ve ever seen or heard.  It documents a marital crisis between her and her husband.  She lets him have it about his infidelity and lies.  With her words, burns everything in her relationship down, and says, “I’m not sorry.”  But at some point on her journey in this  album, she sees the seeds of something beautiful that still exists between the two of them, and says, “If we are going to heal, let it be glorious.”  And from the ashes, these two people, begin again.  She and her partner had to burn everything down to see what was left.  Their relationship had to burn to the ground so they could see what was left.

This happens in forest fires too.  As terrifying as they are, they serve an important purpose.  They kill off diseased trees and insects, and they allow those smaller ground covers to grow.  Those ground covers are what hold the soil in place.  When the trees get too big, the other plants are denied sunlight.  

And, when the forest fire dies, it leaves strong tree seeds to grow in the earth, in a soil nurtured by the ash from the fire.

Today I’m thinking about Pentecost in the wildest way possible--On that day when the wind and fire entered that room, everything burned away.  And what was left were seeds.  

And those seeds were the disciples, and their passion to tell the story of Jesus, who showed them the way to live, and in his death and resurrection, showed them the way to live and die without fear. These disciples--after this weather event in the upper room where they waited fearfully--they were sent to all parts of the world.  We know some of the disciples traveled all around the world--to Spain, Africa, Italy and elsewhere--to tell the story of Jesus.  They did not have a book.  They didn’t have a theological perspective.  They had the stories and their experience.  

Today I pray for fire.  Not an actual fire to consume this building, but a fire to burn away all the things that have been created and called church.  I want to burn away all the bad theology that has been used to hurt, exclude and keep people away from God.  I want a fire that will burn away all the extraneous, distracting things that cover up what is what is truly the gospel.

I want all of that to burn away, so that we can see what’s left.  What is left are the seeds that grow strong in the rich soil of what was.  What is left is a story that is radical again, that--under all the theology has been layered on top of the creation story, Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection stories--under all of that is a radical, counter cultural, message that we need to hear again.  Under all those layers of cultural normativity we’ve put on the biblical story is a story of God reaching out to us, of God wanting relationship with us, and wanting us to love and care for each other.  

So maybe this sounds more angry than I mean it to, but let’s just let this whole thing burn down.  Let’s let this system of Christianity we’ve inherited be burned by the intense fire of God’s love, and by God’s original intentions for us.  Let it burn.  Let’s let go of all those things that we’ve inherited that have nothing to do with the gospel.  And let’s see what’s left.  

And then let’s let what’s left be blown about by the great wind that is the holy spirit.  Because, this gift we’ve been given is not ours to hold onto so tightly, it’s not ours to tame or control or even define.  It is God’s gift to us.



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