Fired Up

Acts 2:1-21
May 24, 2015
Steve Hammond

I want to begin with this Pentecost blessing.
What the Fire Gives
A Blessing for Pentecost Day—Jan Richardson
You had thought that fire
only consumed,
only devoured,
only took for itself,
leaving merely ash
and memory
of something
you had thought,
if not permanent,
would be long enough,
enduring enough,
to be nearly
So when you felt
the scorch on your lips,
the searing in your heart,
you could not
at first believe
that flame could be
so generous,
that when it came to you —
you, in your sackcloth
and sorrow —
it did not come
to consume,
to take still more
than everything.
What surprised you most
were not the syllables
that spilled from
your scalded,
astonished mouth —
though that was miracle
to have words
burn through
what had been numb,
to find your tongue
aflame with a language
you did not know
you knew —
no, what came
as greatest gift
was to be so heard
in the place
of your deepest
to be so seen
within the blazing,
to be met
with such completeness
by what the fire
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We are used to fire consuming, taking, destroying, but the fire of Pentecost is a gift, a gift, it turns out, to all. The miracles of Pentecost were not sounds like wind, or divided tongues, as of fire, but that sounds like wind filled the whole room. And the tongues, as of fire, rested on each of them. All touched by the wind and fired-up they went running from their hideout into the streets. Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Egyptians and Libyans, Romans, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs. They were included, too, on that Day of Pentecost. They heard, they understood. They, too, imagined something as if fire.

Frank Couch, a person whose writing I keep coming across, is becoming my Moravian bestie. Here are his thoughts on the Pentecost story, on what happened that day in Jerusalem. English translations underplay the fear-inducing, adrenalin-pumping, wind-tossed, fire-singed, smoke-filled turmoil of that experience. Those who observed this Pentecost visitation from outside the room are described as “bewildered” (v. 6), “amazed and astonished” (v. 7), and “amazed and perplexed” (v. 12). The Greek terms describing their reactions could be appropriately rendered as confused, in an uproar, beside themselves, undone, blown away, thoroughly disoriented, completely uncomprehending. It’s important to release this story, he continues, from its 2,000 year-long domestication. Its connections to some of scripture’s most primal, disorderly, prophetic roots open doors into a liberating, open-ended array of possibilities made possible by the unconstrained Spirit of God.

Since that first Pentecost we have been living, the Apostle Peter declares, in the last days. His evidence? The Spirit is poured out on everyone. Not just a few of the folk hiding away in a room somewhere. Not just all the folk in that room. Not just the Jews and the proselytes. Not just the Romans or the Arabs.
“Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young men shall see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. Slave and free. Men and women.”

Much to the consternation of the institutionally settled, this fire is burning out of control. It’s swept along by the wind. Or is it Spirit? Or is it breath? Funny how that word can mean any of those things. And, anyway, who said that just anybody could proclaim God’s deeds and power? And who said that just anybody was allowed in on what was our secret, our special relationship to God. These must be the last days for sure.

What happens when everybody, every boy and girl, every woman and man, every one enslaved, and everyone who is free, can have their mouths, their lives touched by something like tongues of fire? Well one thing is that the dry bones begin to rattle. Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones. Even they begin to hear the word of the Lord. They take on sinew and muscle and nerves and flesh and breath and spirit. That boneyard valley suddenly becomes a place of life. And they aren’t like animated corpses, the walking dead, Zombies who only see human beings as prey. These once dry bones become a community of the living, an inclusive community of these last days where we recognize that something like tongues of fire, something like breath, something like wind can land on all of us. Everyone and everything can proclaim the deeds and power of God and everyone and everything can hear it, and understand it in their own language.

The followers of Jesus came alive, they were suddenly on fire. Those three years with Jesus where they seemed so clueless, more of an obstacle to the Jesus Movement than moving it forward were, in an instant, a thing of the past. Something like fire settled on tongues that beforehand only seemed able to speak of confusion and disbelief. Or just kept quiet.

Jesus knew all along, though, that those dry bones could live. And they ran out of that room like cats with their tails on fire and they began speaking to the valleys of dry bones. And the bones came alive. And this living, breathing, wind and spirit filled community called the church is still coming alive. And we continue to be touched with tongues like fire. It’s a fire, though, that doesn’t consume, but like the fire that fires a kiln and burns us into our purpose. And it all started in that little room in Jerusalem where everybody thought the fire had gone out.

So here’s a word for those graduating. You’re getting lots of those these days. But, of course, they aren’t just for you. Lots of those things you are hearing are things we all need to hear, maybe just in our own languages. Howard Thurman, the great American preacher and theologian, who sojourned for a bit in Oberlin, wrote this. Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

This day before commencement is always so hard. Too many good-byes have to be said. But we have been building a church with each other these past few years. What a gift of the Spirit that is. And what I want for all of you who are leaving is to find a place, a community of faith, where you can come alive, and also where they will gratefully receive the life you are bringing with you. What I want for you is to have those folk who will stand with you over the dry bones and prophecy life to them. “Hey come alive with us. There is breath. There is wind. There is fire. There is Spirit. Jesus is leading the way. We can find our way out of this valley.”

Everyone in that room was touched by the wind and the fire. Everyone in that town heard the glories of God in their own languages. Every man and woman, every son and daughter has been called to dream dreams and proclaim God’s word. The Spirit of Pentecost blows down all our barriers and burns down all our assumptions. Even the church can seem no more than a valley of dry bones, but as long as we are prophesying life, those bones can live again.

I began with a Pentecost blessing by Jan Richardson and want to end with something else from her, something for those graduating, something for those not graduating, something for all of us to hear no matter what language we are speaking right now.

Here’s one thing
you must understand
about this blessing:
it is not
for you alone.
It is stubborn
about this;
do not even try
to lay hold of it
if you are by yourself,
thinking you can carry it
on your own.
To bear this blessing,
you must first take yourself
to a place where everyone
does not look like you
or think like you,
a place where they do not
believe precisely as you believe,
where their thoughts
and ideas and gestures
are not exact echoes
of your own.
Bring your sorrow. Bring your grief.
Bring your fear. Bring your weariness,
your pain, your disgust at how broken
the world is, how fractured,
how fragmented
by its fighting, its wars,
its hungers, its penchant for power,
its ceaseless repetition
of the history it refuses
to rise above.
I will not tell you
this blessing will fix all that.
But in the place
where you have gathered,
Lay aside your inability
to be surprised,
your resistance to what you
do not understand.
See then whether this blessing
turns to flame on your tongue,
sets you to speaking
what you cannot fathom
or opens your ear
to a language
beyond your imagining
that comes as a knowing
in your bones
a clarity
in your heart
that tells you
this is the reason
we were made,
for this ache
that finally opens us,
for this struggle, this grace
that scorches us
toward one another
and into
the blazing day.
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