Strange Fire

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Found on a walk through Austin, Texas. 

Day of Pentecost
Ezekiel 37:1-14

Acts 2:1-21

Disclaimer: I’ll say from the outset that it’s impossible to have a relevant conversation about the Holy Spirit without talking in some way about what’s going on in the world.

And with that, to borrow from Stephen Colbert, happy birthday, Church.
I got you this sermon.

One of my favorite podcasters, Jon Lovett, begins his news podcast Lovett or Leave It in an almost liturgical way — after some housekeeping matters, he says, “What a week! Let’s get into it…” and a starting bell rings.

That’s how I feel this week. 

What a week! Let’s get into it. : rings gong : 

There was a royal wedding, of course.

Then there was bad news.

Chaos at the border between Gaza and Israel. Crowds that charged the border were met with Israeli Defense Forces shooting live rounds of fire. 

A volcano is erupting in Hawaii, filling the air with ash, lava, and fire. People are canceling their business trips and vacations while Hawaiian officials try to communicate that while the situation is serious, no, the whole big island is not engulfed in flames.
Another school shooting happened as a student opened fire on his classmates in Santa Fe, Texas.

More comments and revelations from more politicians and more reports about financial disclosures, interviews, scandals of various kinds, etc. result in media firestorm. 

AND FINALLY, and much less crucially,

A fiery debate ensued when a viral audio clip surfaced first on Instagram along with a poll where those listening were asked to say what word they heard: 53% heard the computer voice saying “laurel,” while 47% heard “yanny.” [Plays audio clip, takes poll]

As here, the ensuing debate was fierce. People were legitimately upset that people heard the exact same clip as them and heard a radically different word being said. Since humans thrive on connection and mutual experience, it’s disturbing almost: “HOW do you hear THAT from THAT?” 

Needless to say, it was emblematic of a time when we see the same events in the news and come to radically different conclusions than our neighbors about the exact same events. This laurel/yanny thing was the kind of silly thing that shed light on … well, just about every other event I mentioned above.

Whether the age we live in is particularly fiery, I’m not sure. But it does feel at times, as Bonnie Tyler once sang, that we’re living in a powder keg and giving off sparks.

Fire, whether literal or metaphorical, can be quite destructive, in reality and as a metaphor. “Fire” is the word we use to talk about actual blazes that can destroy homes, businesses, life, and entire cities. 

“Fire” is the word we use to describe live ammunition. 

It’s the word we use to describe someone’s termination of employment. Bosses do not tell people that they are “watered.” 

Needless to say, to “hold someone’s feet to the fire” is not a friendly gesture of helping them warm their toes. 

When we talk about hell, we talk about fire. 

Finally, “fire” is a metaphor we often invoke when we discuss the great debates of our age, wherein we cannot manage to see reality — or hear reality — in the same ways as our neighbors.

The word “fire,” at least when it appears on the news, is usually a destructive word and one if, used to describe the age you live in, isn’t describing an age of peace.

So it seems almost odd to celebrate a day where the dominant image for God is fire.

We have struggled in recent years through lots of things, but it’s hard to ignore the dominant image of the day filling our ears on the news in dreary reporting: 

“… fire and fury…” “…fired on the Palestinians charging the border …” “opened fire on his classmates…”

And those images set a fire within all our chests and we get ready for a fight, because the silly “laurel/yanny” clip is not as funny when it’s real stuff we’re hearing radically differently from our neighbors: like the nightly news.

In this age of misinterpretation and fire, what are we to make of the Holy Spirit coming as wind and fire on Pentecost, and everyone hearing the Gospel in their own language? It’s the flip side of the laurel/yanny clip — everyone agrees on what is heard, but the words spoken are radically different.

This is no ordinary fire. This fire — the one that is God — is strange. 

We struggle in our age — at least most of us do — to understand how we hear such radically different messages from the news. In this age, I think we’ve all found ourselves sitting across from someone we love, flummoxed that they cannot see the injustice that we see, and confused and frustrated that someone we love so much could disagree with us so fundamentally about what is right and wrong in the world. I get that.

I don’t have any solutions. As an armchair – or really, earbud – follower of the news, I believe that there are objective truths about the world and about the dignity of humanity and common sense ways to keep people safe. As a student of history, I realize that, over time, Americans and humanity have tackled really hard questions, and though we have failed a lot, we’ve also managed to hammer out some things. These are things that we struggle to understand the difficulty of now: things like slavery being bad, and medicine being good, and that all citizens should have a vote, not just landowners and not just white people and not just men.

As a pastor, I’m also mindful that humanity cannot make such decisions without somehow leaving people behind, crushing them below the wheels of history, and we will always argue about how much they did or didn’t deserve it.

But in the midst of all of this, God comes to us as wind and fire. Humanity cannot save itself. We’re generally bad at saving ourselves. People always get hurt, and this week and this age are no different. We need a miracle. 

When I was in Austin last year, I saw a piece of art that I have held in my memory ever since. Stenciled onto a wall were the simple words: 

“THE ONLY MAGIC I STILL BELIEVE IN IS LOVE.” 

I have no quick answers for the questions that plague our time. I have a Pentecost narrative in one hand and a newspaper full of destructive fire of all kinds in the other. I have a biblical story about people hearing the same thing in different words and a reality of people hearing different things when they hear the same words. I have an account of a miracle, while I’m seeing a world that needs a miracle, and the only magic I still believe in is love. 

I got to go see the Indigo Girls last week, knowing that this would inevitably influence what I preached on Pentecost. It was just what I needed. The Indigo Girls hail from Decatur, Georgia, which also happens to be the suburb of Atlanta where I went to seminary, and each of the members of the duo had family which connected somehow to my theological formation.

The Indigo Girls and their families were as much a part of my theological education as nearly any course I took. And when my best friend from seminary got ordained, this Indigo Girls song was the offertory:

“I come to you with strange fire
I make an offering of love
The incense of my soil is burned
By the fire in my blood
I come with a softer answer
To the questions that lie in your path
I want to harbor you from the anger
Find a refuge from the wrath
This is a message
A message of love
Love that moves from the inside out
Love that never grows tired
I come to you with strange fire…” 

The Holy Spirit’s fire is a strange fire indeed: it is not the destructive metaphor or reality on the news. The Holy Spirit is nothing less than the only magic I can still manage to believe in: love. 

It’s the strange fire lit by the waters of baptism, the strange fire that creates rather than destroying, and the kind that causes new strong winds to refresh and stir rather than sucking all the air out of a room.

“I come to you with strange fire…”

We are used to fire that deconstructs and scatters, but on Pentecost, the Strange Fire shows up where everyone is gathered and gives them a message of love they can all understand.

This Strange Fire comes to us as God — as love that dwells within and among us. This is the unseen force that brings us together at key moments and tells us to speak up about injustice even if our voices shake. I once heard the Holy Spirit described as a beautiful, tough, solid, mothering woman who stands behind us with her purse on her hip and whispers, “Speak your truth, baby. I’m right here.” The Holy Spirit is a strange fire that causes us to run into just the person that we need at the right time. The Strange Fire of love that knits us all together with people who are totally different than us in lifestyle, culture, and even politics in 2018. This Strange Fire is all that knits the church together in an age where we agree about so little.

To all of us, God says, “Welcome home. Have a seat at the table” — and we all, somehow, actually hear the same welcome.

This doesn’t mean it’s always been easy. It’s never been easy. Unfortunately, the Church is full of humans, and messed it up so much that this sentence warrants a stronger word.

But every now and then, we manage to get it right. We pay attention the Strange Fire of the Spirit, even when it seems crazy. In those moments, we welcome those who need us and those who never knew they did. We offer resurrection to people in a way that matters. We speak out against injustice and we even manage to speak the same language and see the same realities. 

We become people who heal souls and prophets who speak truths with a Strange Fire.

There are times when I think that the church has always been and always will be violent at worst and a little irrelevant at best. But despite the skepticism that always lives with me, I keep seeing this Strange Fire burn. The Holy Spirit keeps bringing me to communion tables and bar tables where love is the miracle we need, where things can actually get done, where love and hope, not anger, burn bright.

In our age of fire, where war is ever near and we don’t see or hear reality in the same way our neighbors or even fellow churchgoers do, watch to see where this Strange Fire is burning. Gather at the table where the Spirit and God’s family are present. Where you may hear “laurel,” and you may think differently than me about everything, but we all hear Gospel.

Next Sunday the paschal candle by the font that we light for the entire Easter season will go away, but we’ll carry the fire of resurrection in our souls. The strange fire of the paschal candle – the one we light at vigil, for all of Easter, and for every baptism and every funeral and every time we remember that love is stronger than death – that strange fire of love lives in us now. 

Because in our age of fire, the world needs some magic, and the only magic I still believe in is love. Amen.

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The Oddest Jesus Story, and the God Who Lingers

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Thoughts on the weirdest Jesus story.

Ascension Sunday
Acts 1:1-11

Luke 24:44-53

As anyone who has moved cross-country knows, the United States is a big country with lots of different cultures. Whether you move from the East Coast to the West Coast or the Midwest to the South or the South to the North, you find that people engage each other slightly differently wherever you go in America. 

As any of you who have traveled to or lived in the South know, folks from there are often slow to leave one another after a social gathering. New Englanders don’t do that. You finish, you exchange pleasantries, you leave. (I’ve learned to actually really appreciate this about you.) 

My friend who grew up in Connecticut says that that’s because you can’t linger here or your face would freeze during at least half the year. As she puts it, “Okay, well, I’d love to stay and talk, but my face is freezing, so do you have everything you need? Great. Later!” 

Southern goodbyes are much slower, and typically go something like this: 

Step 1: State how you do not want to say goodbye, but might have to leave now. This usually comes in the form of “Well, we hate to run,” which is often met with something like, “Y’all don’t have to leave!” 

Step 2: Move towards door. Slowly.

Step 3: Bring up an entirely new topic. Examples include: “Now when is your sister havin’ surgery again? …Well, tell her we’re prayin’ for her.”

Step 4: Numbers can vary, but Step 4 usually involves food. “Take some of that casserole with ya!” Commence dealing with the food and continue to walk towards the door. (1)

I won’t bore you with the rest, since the steps, at least as far as I can tell, can easily go through 25, possibly more if there are children involved, but inevitably the last step is instructing someone to be careful traveling home. It’s usually stated something like, “Well, y’all be careful,” along with a warning about some hazard that they may encounter along the way, such as wet roads, fog, deer, or overturned peanut trailers. 

It’s not that Southerners can’t say quick goodbyes; it’s that we reserve those for people we don’t like very much. This is why Northerners and Southerners can get our wires crossed. This happens in Southern families when somebody marries a Northerner: “Oh no, Aunt Bea, Uncle Jim loves you very much. He’s just from New York.” 

Here in South Hadley, I’ve learned to see people’s eyes get a little shifty as I’m on to Step 6 of a Southern goodbye, and I’ll say, “Oh, am I being Southern again? Sorry. See you later!” 

Part of Southern culture is to linger. Even if it can be irritating to people from other places, Southern lingering is a way of showing love. It’s a way of saying, “I enjoy your company so much that it’s hard to say goodbye.” It is a way of showing affection.

Ever wonder why Jesus didn’t just ascend into heaven right after the Resurrection?

I dare say he was being a little Southern. He lingers.

He rises from the dead, and appears to Mary. Then he appears to his disciples, twice in the same room. He has breakfast on the beach with them. He has dinner with them. He appears to them several times, in locked rooms and on roads. He tells them everything they need to know, at times more than once. God became one of us, died like one of us, and was raised again because even death couldn’t take God from us. And here at the end of the story, God loves the people so much that just doesn’t seem to want to leave. 

The Easter season puts forty days between the Resurrection and the Ascension. During that time in the church year, we live with the resurrected Christ, we listen to him, we hear stories about him. Besides the long season after Pentecost, the Easter season where we live with the resurrected Christ is the longest season we have in the whole church year.

And then he ascends — he gets taken up into heaven. 

When my best friend Samuel and I visited Amsterdam one spring, we needed to mail a package back home. We asked the attendant at the front desk of our hotel where the nearest post office was and she told us where it was but said, “It’s closed today.” 

“On a Thursday?” Samuel replied. 

“Yes,” she said. “It’s a church holiday. The one where Jesus…. dahtahtah [makes upward floating motion with hand].” 

She was looking for the English word for a fittingly ridiculous word for “ascension” in Dutch: “hemelvaart.” It’s even funnier in German: “himmelfahrt.”

I mean, really. 

The story has always been a little funny to me, in part because I imagine the disciples trying to explain “Where’s Jesus” to their friends who weren’t there. If everyone didn’t already think the disciples were loony after the whole “rose from the dead after a public execution” thing, they certainly would after this. 

“Where’s Jesus?” 

“He, um, floated away.” 

What?”

“Well, we climbed a hill with him and he just sorta rose up and went into the clouds. He floated away.” 

We’ve heard this story so much that it loses its character, but really. It’s gotta be hard to explain how your Lord and Teacher rose from the dead, stuck around awhile, and then just drifted off into the sky like an escaped birthday balloon. 

It’s even hard to depict without looking a little silly: check out the cover of the bulletin. Jesus is cloud surfing while the disciples cheer him on. Among the rejects was another one where we only saw Jesus from the waist down as he was set in perspective back from the disciples. He looked like he was being prepped for surgery. 

Then there’s one church named the “church of the ascension” in Europe that has nail-scarred feet dangling from the ceiling as if Jesus got stuck and is thinking, “Note to self: next time ascend outside.” 

Then there’s the ending of the story: the disciples stand gaping at the sky in Acts, wondering what in the all-get-out had just happened, and they don’t notice that two angels have stood next to them. 

I think God was just messing with them at this point.

They’re staring at the sky and then they jump three feet clean into the air because they hadn’t noticed that now there are TWO ANGELS standing next to them who suddenly say, essentially, “Whatcha lookin’ at? 

“He’ll come back in the same way you saw him leave,” they say. 

And so they go back down the Mount of Olives.

The last things Luke recorded him saying before he ascended was this: “Stay here [in Jerusalem] until you have been clothed with power from on high…. [then] you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Luke 24:49, Acts 1:8b). 

Jesus had lingered with them, and now they were to linger together with one another. 

So they do. 

In the next verses of Acts, they’ll gather the whole community: all of Jesus’ disciples, male and female, linger together and eat and pray and wait to see what God will do. 

There is a message in this for us. 

On this day, we don’t have Jesus in the flesh to tell us exactly what to do. But he still lingers out of love, like a good Southerner. Most of you know by now that one of my favorite quotes about Christian worship is that “Jesus loved meals so much he became one.” (2) So in that way, Jesus continues to linger here, among his people, unwilling to leave because he loves being among us.

Together we linger with one another, we eat and pray, and we wait to see what God will do among us. Yes, it’s true: we’re a little crazy. We believe some crazy stuff, like subscribing to this story where God became a human, was born, died, and rose from the dead and essentially cloud surfed back to heaven. We believe other impossible things, too, like that it’s possible to love people who are nothing like us and that we can make a positive impact on the world if we just stick together.

So let’s stop staring up at the sky; Jesus is everywhere now. Let’s linger here together, eat and pray, and wait to see what God will do among us. If the ascension tells you anything, it should be this: God is a little ridiculous, is full of surprises, loves us fiercely, and lingers with us here. Amen.

1. I was assisted in numbering off the steps by comedian Darren Knight, seen here portraying a Southern Mama’s goodbye. Non-Southerners needing translation help with the video should consult their nearest Southerner.

2. Original quote: Dr. Don Saliers, Candler School of Theology, Emory University.

Easter Seasons of Love

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Sixth Sunday of Easter

John 15:9-17
Acts 10:44-48

I’ve always loved musicals, but I reached peak Musical Loving in college, surrounded by theater friends.

In the case of the musical Rent, which came out as a movie in 2005, I already knew every word of the original cast recording when I excitedly entered the movie theatre. I and my other theatre loving friends had been banned by our more sensible and normal companions from singing along or yelling out or otherwise making fools of ourselves. They reminded us in so many words of what Stephen Colbert shared with the world last week: that the policy “If you see something, say something” does not apply to movie theaters. 

The opening number, however, is iconic and it’s hard to keep from singing along not only because its simple harmonies are fantastic, but because it touches on a very deep truth of being human. 

When the show begins, each of the main characters, a diverse group of artist-types who live together in New York City in the 1990s,  is onstage. These are the people we will journey with over the next two hours through a year in their lives of joy and pain and elation and death and enlightenment. This is their story. 

The first words we hear them say together are: 

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?
In daylights?
In sunsets?
In midnights?
In cups of coffee?
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife?
In five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes.
How do you measure a year in a life?
How about love?…
Measure in love — seasons of love.” 

Some thirteen years after I first walked into the movie theater to watch Rent, I’ve become obsessed with another, less musical pop culture phenomenon: the TV comedy series The Good Place. In it, a young woman named Eleanor Shellstrop dies and finds herself in the afterlife, in a waiting room with words on the wall in front of her: EVERYTHING IS FINE.

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She smiles contentedly and waits for whatever comes next.
Eleanor is then called into an office and meets Michael, director of her afterlife. In what is clearly a satirical portrayal of the way that most people see life after death, she finds out that she’s died in a bizarre accident involving shopping carts.

“So which religion is right?” Eleanor asks. 

Michael tells her that every religion got about 5% correct about the afterlife, except for one guy in the 70s who, with chemical help, somehow scored 95% correct. His photo hangs in Michael’s office.

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Eleanor finds out that there’s a “good place” and a “bad place,” and that where a person goes depends entirely on a perfect and flawless formula that weighed each person’s deeds throughout their life. They come up with a number, and bam! The cream of the crop — the very best people — get to go to the Good Place, where they get to live in their own personal perfect house with their soulmate in a world full of opportunities to fly and frozen yogurt shops.

I highly recommend The Good Place. It’s not a primer on theology — it’s a primer on humanity and how we see ourselves.

You see, I talked last week about how we like to earn things, how we like for other people to earn things, and how my one mission as a clergy person is to help people see that God is not as petty as we are. From my perspective, The Good Place exposes the ridiculousness of the way we often think of good deeds and the afterlife, and does so pretty creatively and hilariously. 

This week’s Gospel reading is the continuation of last week’s — the one where Jesus says, “I am the vine, and you are the branches.” Last week, we talked about how it’s absurd to think that branches earned their way onto the vine — they just grow there. 

Today he says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” 

I know that’s right.

I sometimes worry about how much people in the church seem proud that they chose Jesus. Are you kidding me? This stuff is hard. 

We don’t earn our places here, but now that we’re here, we’re called to do some stuff that I don’t like to do and am not naturally good at. We’re called to do annoying things like loving people who drive us up the wall and worse, people we think have got it all wrong.

“Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?” 

In debates won? In points scored?

In fact checks, in virtues modeled?

In postures, in lies, in truths, or in kind? 

How about love?” 

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” 

Measure in love — seasons of love.

This morning’s Acts reading contains quite the scene: Peter is speaking to a mixed crowd of Jews and Gentiles after Jesus had been resurrected and had drifted on up to heaven. Peter himself was Jewish, and the people he’d brought with him were, too, but that detail is less important than this one: that means that they all shared the same system, the same worldview, the same ways of thinking about God and the Holy Scriptures.

As Peter is speaking, some commotion breaks out as people are getting excited about what Peter is saying to them. And the story goes, “The circumcised believers [that is, those who observed Jewish law about all things, and I do mean all things] were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles” (10:45). 

All this time they’d been thinking they were the ones who got it, then they finally figured it out: God was bigger than any of the boxes into which they wanted to put God. That God isn’t as petty as we are. That we don’t get to control whom God loves or speaks to That there is no flawless formula a la The Good Place wherein it is determined who’s good enough to be loved by God. 

What’s more, they figured out that God has welcomed us, warts and all — so how can we not welcome others?

“Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’” (10:47)

Of course, any of them might’ve wanted to. Some of them probably did. Just like with the Ethiopian eunuch in the Acts reading last week, he asked the disciple with him, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Of course, the answer was: everything and nothing. Everything about the church, and nothing about God.

And in this episode of Acts, when Peter says, “Can anyone withhold the water?” the ever-present religious cries of “But the Scripture says” fall away. They are baptized. 

“Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?”

In offerings? In attendance? 

Beer & Hymns or cups of coffee?

Confirmations? Baptisms? In funerals, in births?

How do you measure the worth of a church?

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” 

Measure in love — seasons of love.

This whole thing Jesus is talking about is about giving love to people and a world that seem unloveable because we know what it’s like to be unlovable — but still loved. 

In the Lutheran church, we talk a lot about Law and Gospel. In a nutshell, it’s this: law tells us how to love, while Gospel tells us that we are loved. And it’s a cycle that feeds itself over and over, like in the children’s sermon: because we are loved by God, we keep loving. It’s simple human brainworks: those who feel safe and loved are set free to love others and almost can’t help doing so. It’s a circle. 

The Law of what Jesus says is “Love one another.” The Gospel is “as I have loved you.” 

It’s a circle. 

To close, I want to lead you in a song — Our Savior’s: The Musical, if you will. The song itself is a circle, to remind us of how this all works. 

It goes like this: 

“All who are thirsty, come to the waters,
All who are hungry, come and be fed
All who are thirsty, come to the waters,
There’s enough for all….[repeat]” 

:: congregation learns song and nails it! ::

Come here, sing and pray here, and be fed here. 

There’s enough for all, in the spirit of Jesus, measured in love. Amen.