Sunday’s sermon: Singed But Sacred

Text used – Acts 2:1-21

  • You cannot come away from fire unchanged.
    • In the benign sense
      • Fire warms us
      • Looking at the light of the fire leaves a temporary imprint on the backs of your eyes
      • The smell of fire clings to us → transports us to memories of other times when we’ve been in fire’s presence
        • Campfires
        • Bonfires
        • Snuggled up next to the fireplace on a cold winter evening
      • Even tickles our tastebuds in the sense of tasting the char on a marshmallow or hot dog or some other delicious bit cooked over an open flame
    • Cannot ignore the more perilous side → fire’s unpredictable and destructive nature
      • Fires that consume people’s businesses, homes, even lives
      • Wildfires that can blaze out of control for days or even week and consume millions of acres of land and property
        • Wildfire that was burning in the BWCA just this past week[1] → relatively small
          • Believed to have been started by a lightning strike
          • Burned about 950 acres
          • Slowed by the recent rain we’ve gotten
        • Massive wildfires in the last decade
          • California wildfires in 2018 (including the Camp Fire)[2]
            • Deadliest fires of the decade: combined 188 lives
            • Destroyed more than 41,000 buildings
            • Burned nearly 2 million acres
          • Australian bush fire in 2019-2020[3]
            • Blazed through roughly 46 million acres
            • Destroyed nearly 6000 buildings
            • Took the lives of 34 people
          • BWCA wildfire in 2011[4]
            • Also started by lightning strike
            • Burned for about 2 weeks à consumed more than 100,000 acres
            • Peter and I actually drove past some of the destroyed areas the following summer. I was interviewing with a church up in Ely, and on our way there, we drove past mile after mile of charred forests that looked like someone had stuck giant, spent matchsticks into the ground.
    • On the other hand, we know through historical accounts and through wisdom passed down from generation to generation that Indigenous peoples had been using fire for thousands of years as a tool to both cultivate and regenerate the land. → known as “cultural burning”: the intentional lighting of smaller, controlled fires to provide a desired cultural service, such as promoting the health of vegetation and animals that provide food, clothing, ceremonial items and more[5]
      • Article from The History Channel website: Anthropologists have identified at least 70 different uses of fire among indigenous and aboriginal peoples, including clearing travel routes, long-distance signaling, reducing pest populations like rodents and insects, and hunting.[6] → yet another element of Indigenous life that European colonists completely misunderstood and tried to eliminate
      • What the Indigenous people knew that the European colonists didn’t: that many ecosystems actually require periodic burning to not only survive but to thrive → National Geographic article (“The Ecological Benefits of Fire”): Many ecosystems benefit from periodic fires, because they clear out dead organic material—and some plant and animal populations require the benefits fire brings to survive and reproduce. For example, as dead or decaying plants begin to build up on the ground, they may prevent organisms within the soil from accessing nutrients or block animals on the land from accessing the soil. This coating of dead organic matter can also choke outgrowth of smaller or new plants. When humans perform a prescribed burn, the goal is to remove that layer of decay in a controlled manner, allowing the other, healthy parts of the ecosystem to thrive. Moreover, nutrients released from the burned material, which includes dead plants and animals, return more quickly into the soil than if they had slowly decayed over time. In this way, fire increases soil fertility.[7] → We’ve all seen the images – either real life images or the kind produced for the benefit of Hollywood cinema – of a small green shoot or delicate flower poking out of the blackened and burned debris around it. There is renewal and life and possibility after the flames … but that doesn’t make the flames any more comfortable, any more tame. It doesn’t make them any less destructive or erratic. You cannot come away from fire unchanged.
  • Today = celebrate the holy day of Pentecost
    • Birth of the church
    • Gift of the Holy Spirit coming down on the disciples gathered in Jerusalem and alighting on them in the form of fierce, howling wind and tongues of flame → fracturing the good news of the gospel into a dozen languages and spreading the word of God like … well … like wildfire
    • Pentecost is a day born of and marked by Holy Spirit flames – by a fire that blazes and consumes and renews and changes things like none other. And sure, now we observe Pentecost as a day of celebration and joy! But I have to wonder what that day must have been like for those who lived it: for the disciples who felt the burning, ever-distrupting presence of the Holy Spirit descending upon them and rushing and swirling around and in and through them; or for the people watching, those who witnessed not only the wind and the flames but the after effects as well – the disciples, the known Galileans, the Jews who had all been speaking to one another in their own language just a moment ago but were now suddenly speaking a dozen different languages, probably with shocked and confused and even frightened expressions on their faces as the word of God poured out of their mouths. Did the disciples even understand what they were saying? Or was it more like those immediate translation programs that they have at global meetings like the United Nations or the G8 – those ones that translate whatever language is being spoken on the spot into whatever language the listener requires? … You cannot come away from fire unchanged.
  • Yes, we often talk about the joy and celebration of Pentecost. But we don’t often talk about the disruption. We don’t often talk about the upheaval. We don’t often talk about the scattering that that original Pentecost event caused in the life of the church.
    • From that moment, gospel began to be taken out into the wider world
    • From that moment, the disciples’ lives would never be the same
    • From that moment, many of them were marked for death → would die as martyrs spreading that same message that they proclaimed by the work of the Holy Spirit that morning
    • From K. C. Ireton’s The Circle of Seasons: Meeting God in the Church Year (fabulous little book that explores the history, the wonder, and the worship that can be found in every season and holy day of the church year) – chapter on Pentecost: Stunning and scary. Beautiful and powerful. Wild and luminous. These words strike me as reflecting the paradox of the Holy Spirit, whose outpouring on the followers of Jesus we celebrate on Pentecost.[8] → Stunning and Beautiful and powerful. Wild and luminous. You cannot come away from fire unchanged. Especially not the fierce and stirring flames of the Holy Spirit.
      • And I think this is a paradox that we’ve felt particularly acutely over this past year.
        • Come to a new appreciation of the power and pull of community … but only because we’ve had to stay apart this past year.
        • Come to a new appreciation for the vital work done by so many in our community: healthcare professionals, essential workers (grocery store employees, mail and package delivery people, childcare professionals, etc.), teachers and those in education … but only because we’ve seen the sheer exhaustion and utter depletion they’ve experienced this past year.
        • Come to a new appreciation for the strength and capability of our own bodies … but only because we’ve seen so many suffer through the pandemic and even lose their lives this past year.
        • Come to a new appreciation for the power of compromise and coming together … but only because we have seen how truly devastating and toxic divisiveness and political in-fighting can be.
        • (Hopefully) come to a new appreciation for the gifts and stories and experiences and the very lives of our Black, Indigenous, People of Color siblings … but only because we have seen and heard of too many acts of violence done against them in this past year alone (let alone the centuries leading up to this one).
        • You cannot come away from fire unchanged. And while we cannot say that we have completely come away from this fire yet, my friends, we can say with certainty that we have been changed. We have been singed by the pain and the loss and the stress and the isolation and the desperation that this past year has brought in so many different ways. But it is my hope and my prayer that you have come through this past year knowing and believing that God is with you – that God has hunkered down in the midst of social isolation; that God has sat vigil at the side of ICU beds and grieved with millions of loved ones across this country and around the world; that God has paced the house with you in the middle of the night as you worried about distance learning for your kids or your grandmother’s health in her residential care facility or your mounting bills or how the heck you’re going to try to work from home tomorrow and actually get anything done with everything else going on; that God has irrevocably declared the lives of Black people, Indigenous people, and People of Color to be good and worthy and valued and beautiful. We have come away singed, yes, but we have come away reminded that we are also sacred.
          • Ireton: I want to see the Holy Spirit at work, transforming lives, drawing all people to Christ, changing hearts, comforting the afflicted, convicting the avaricious and the apathetic. Of course I want that. I just want it on my terms – slow and quiet. And a lot of the time, that’s how the Holy Spirit seems to work – slowly, inwardly, quietly, subtly, in ways that are not easily discerned unless one is paying attention or taking a long view of things. But sometimes the Holy Spirit is loud, raucous, obvious, even violent, as in the Pentecost story.[9]
  • Throughout Lent, we used some of the poetic blessings written by Jan Richardson in her book Circle of Grace.[10] Today, I want to leave you with the words of another one of her blessings – “This Grace That Scorches Us: A Blessing for Pentecost Day.” This one comes from Richardson’s website, “The Painted Prayerbook.” [READ “This Grace That Scorches Us[11]] You cannot come away from fire unchanged. Amen.

[1] https://kstp.com/minnesota-news/wildfire-moves-out-of-boundary-waters-canoe-area-wilderness-bwcaw-toward-cabins/6115424/.

[2] https://blog.batchgeo.com/largest-wildfires/.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2019%E2%80%9320_Australian_bushfire_season.

[4] https://wildfiretoday.com/2011/09/14/minnesota-pagami-creek-fire-mapped-at-100000-acres-evacuations-ordered/.

[5] https://www.history.com/news/native-american-wildfires.

[6] Ibid.

[7] https://www.nationalgeographic.org/article/ecological-benefits-fire/.

[8] K.C. Ireton. The Circle of Seasons: Meeting God in the Church Year, tenth anniversary edition. (Edmonds: Mason Lewis Press, 2018), 98.

[9] Ibid, 100.

[10] Jan Richardson. Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons. (Orlando: Wanton Gospeller Press), 2015.

[11] http://paintedprayerbook.com/2014/06/01/pentecost-this-grace-that-scorches-us/.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s