How to Start a Fire

A sermon based on Exodus 13:17-22 and Acts 2:1-21 preached on May 15th, 2016

Sermon audio

If you believe author Elizabeth Gilbert, ideas are living beings. That is, she says, they exist outside of us and they survive in spite of us. Here’s what she means by that. Years ago, Elizabeth had an idea for a novel—a very specific idea: It was a story set in the 1960’s about a middle-aged spinster from Minnesota who’s secretly been in love with her boss for years. He gets involved in a harebrained business scheme down in the Amazon jungle. A bunch of money goes missing, and the main character gets sent down there to solve the problem.

Her editor liked the plot and told Elizabeth to write her novel, but she got sidetracked by the stuff of life, and after years of sitting on the idea, she conceded that the novel would never be written, and the idea slowly floated away.

Fast forward a few years later, Elizabeth Gilbert sees a good writer friend of hers named Anna who happened to be in town, and they meet up for lunch. They hadn’t talked to one another for a decade or maybe more. And over lunch, they ask each other what sort of writing projects each are working on, and Elizabeth shares the plot of her novel that would never be. And after Elizabeth was finished sharing, Ana looks her in the eyes and says,

You’ve got to be kidding me! I just finished a novel that set in the 1960’s, and it’s about a spinster from Minnesota who’s been quietly in love with her boss and when her boss goes down to the Amazon jungle, he gets caught up in a wild pharmaceutical scheme, and she has to go down there to solve things.

Now, there are lots of books out there that built out of all the same stuff—millions of murder mysteries or a vampire romances, for instance, but this was something entirely different! Nobody writes a novel about the Amazon jungle at all, and here are two authors with eerily similar book ideas—all the way down to the small details.

Elizabeth Gilbert reflects upon this happenstance in her book Big Magic, except she doesn’t believe it was happenstance at all. She believes that ideas are alive—that they move from one person to the next, trying to find a human collaborator. She thinks that ideas have a conscious, that they move from one soul to another, until they find someone who’s ready to take that yet-to-be manifested idea and turn it into something! And if an idea finds a person who’s unwilling to bring it into being, the idea will move on and find a different host. And an idea, she believes, will do that over and over again until it finds someone with the bravery and the drive to make something real out of it!

Φ

Now this sounds like a far-out idea—something conjured up by someone with too much time on their hands, but Elizabeth Gilbert knows how ideas spark inside of her, how they come and how they go. And, I wonder if her idea about ideas has something to teach us on this Pentecost Sunday—this day when we remember the moment when the first Apostles catch wind of a brand new thing that happens upon them, something they can only describe as Holy Spirit.

Φ

That first Pentecost day was not unlike the day before it or the one before that, but sometime in the morning a presence happened upon them, and they just didn’t know how to describe it. Whatever or whoever this was came like wind and like fire. And even though they were surprised and overcome by its arrival, the Holy Spirit did something to them that they just could not ignore—something real and new and undeniable struck them that morning, and they let whatever or whoever this was happen to them—they said Yes to it and they allowed it to take them over.

But this Holy Spirit, this isn’t a mere idea or some notion that fell upon them, it’s not an idea at all, it’s not even an “it.” The Holy Spirit is a being. Not an idea or a mindset or a notion, but the personal presence of God in Christ that storms into our presence like wind and fire storm through a house!

I think the phrase Holy Spirit is a terrible name for the 3rd person of the Trinity. Holy Ghost isn’t any better either. The word used in the New Testament is paraclete, which means Advocate or Helper. The Holy Spirit is not the leftover idea of Jesus’ presence, she’s not some spiritual feeling that we have once in a while that falls upon us and then leaves. The Holy Spirit is an everywhere presence who speaks to us and for us, who like an Advocate, emboldens and empowers us to live as Christ would have us live.

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This is how you start a fire: you gather heat, along with oxygen and an ignition source. This is how the Church was birthed, when a person-like presence came to them like wind and flame, and began sparking! If all we do is keep our faith to ourselves, all of us held inside a cold, dark room somewhere, anywhere, Jesus stays a mere idea, a lifeless “it” of our devotion, a mere relic or notion instead of a “who”—a real being who lives and breathes and calls us outward, who wants us to be agents of real change for His sake and for the sake of God’s world.

God’s Holy Spirit is the presence who comes in and resides among us, and She sets holy fires in Her people so that the whole world will one day be set ablaze with the Good News of the Gospel.

Φ

Saint Catherine of Sienna was a 14th Century pyromaniac. In a time when women weren’t allowed to challenge men, it was Catherine who sent a letter to Pope Gregory XI, confronting him about, and eventually convincing him, to move the papacy from France back to Rome.

In all her dealings, Catherine of Sienna was forthright but never rude. She cared not a bit about the restraints her culture and time placed on her as a woman. She told the hard truth, but she always did it with love. And she never paid attention to those around her who told her to keep her mouth shut. Indeed, it was because she refused to keep her mouth shut that we remember her to this day as someone who set the world on fire. St. Catherine kept journals, many of which you can read to this day. They’re filled with Spirit-filled prayers that still speak life into their readers.

In one of her journal entries she gave a piece of advice that still echoes through the centuries. She wrote,

Be who God created you to be, and you will set the world on fire!

Φ

We’ve been moving back and forth through the Book of Acts for the last few Sundays, and you’ve been invited to read through Acts on your own this month. The Book of Acts in general is a story filled with fire starters. From Peter, who speaks up in today’s passage to declare that the words of Joel the prophet have finally come to pass—that our sons and daughters would prophecy, that our young would see visions and our old will dream dreams—that the Holy Spirit is here for everyone, no matter who they are or where they’re from.

It was at that first Pentecost that heaven would begin crumbling down into earth, and from ever onward, the two would never be the same. But in order to recognize what God is doing, we’ll have to see with different eyes and hear with different ears, for it is only by the Holy Spirit that we will see how earth is being infused with heaven.

There were people there that day who saw the wind and flame blow among the people, who saw them acting up, speaking in languages that were not theirs to speak, and out of their shortsightedness and their lack of holy imagination, and in their distrust of what God was up to, they assumed that the people had too much to drink. In their minds, that was the only feasible thing that could make anyone behave that way. Their assumption was not only wrong, it was unfaithful, and unimaginative. They were unwilling to believe what God could do. They were unwilling to see in a different way, and with their narrow eyesight, they looked upon the people filled with the Holy Spirit and could only see a bunch of drunkards.

We too live in a world that severely lacks in imagination—especially holy imagination. Ours is a world void of wonder, but those of us who call ourselves Christians are called and challenged by the Holy Spirit to see everything differently, to pay close attention to the presence and mystery of God, but not only that, to join in on what God is doing in and among His world and in and among His people. We are called to be God’s storytellers and God’s fire starters! We are called to take flint and tinder, and with the breath of our own words, and the fuel of our holy imagination, set fire in the hearts of others!

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Garrison Keillor, the host of A Prairie Home Companion on American Public Radio, was once asked to choose what he considered to be the 5 most important books of all time. Keillor is a very well-read man and an author of many books of his own, so any list of books he’d make would be held in high regard by many. So, readers were probably surprised to find that he ranked the Book of Acts at the very top of his list. When asked to describe the Book of Acts, Keillor said in his trademark concise but image-rich way:

The flames lit on their little heads, and bravely and dangerously went they onward.

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Pentecost is that ever-repeating moment when all of us who call ourselves disciples stop sitting around tables inside our tightly enclosed upper rooms, and begin trusting not in our own power or ideas, not in our own imagination or initiative, but give ourselves over to a greater power, to be swept up and outward by a higher calling, and adopt a holy imagination. But, it’s only when and if we bravely and dangerously go onward with the Holy Spirit that God can do amazing things with us and through us!

φ

This and every Pentecost, God wants us to take that tongue of flame and bravely and dangerously start holy fires with it so that others may see by their light who our God is. And if we do that, we too will give birth to the Church.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

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