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: 


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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