Sunday, June 30, 2019

Mark Hurst: Trees planted by water

Jeremiah 17:5-8
Luke 6:43-45

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Sunday, June 23, 2019

Paula Stoltzfus: Sound of sheer silence

Children of God through Faith

1 Kings 19:1-15
Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 8:26-39

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I have never lived through a major natural disaster. I have heard that tornados or hurricanes can sound like a freight train barreling through.  Nor have I felt the earth shake under my feet, causing my visible world to crumble.
The closest I’ve experienced is Super storm Sandy, back in 2012 in PA. It caused our great big pin oak tree in our backyard to whip it’s long gangly limbs over top the house.  It caused us enough concern that we moved everyone to the front of the house to sleep. When the kids were already asleep we heard something hit the roof hard. From inside we couldn’t see anything and we weren’t about to go outside to check it out. It wasn’t until the morning that we discovered that one of the branches had sideswiped the corner of our chimney off, which had fallen on the roof, rolling off onto the yard. Thankfully no harm was done. I recognize that this is very minor damage done.  But I remember the uncertainty I felt that night.
Our experience seems minor compared to a major storm.  Those in Puerto Rico are still rebuilding from Hurricane Maria.  Those in the Midwest are dealing with devastating flooding. When tornadoes strike, damage can be catastrophic.  Recently in Morgantown, PA, the farm where John grew up experienced a tornado which flattened a cinderblock two story farm building.  Wind, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and rains, can make a raging storm.  
Elijah’s stormy experience was a little different than a raging storm in such a way.
Before Elijah’s experience in the mouth of the cave, Elijah witnessed God’s power through powerful acts of nature.  Elijah had witnessed God’s power coming down in the form of fire, striking an alter of water logged wood and freshly slaughtered sacrifice, consuming everything.  This was an act that proved to the people present that God was the true God and not the false god of Baal. The fire was one of wonder and a tangible sign that God was real. 
Elijah’s work at proving God’s power was a threat to those that ruled, namely Jezebel.  A threat was made on Elijah’s life, which was enough to make him flee to the wilderness and eventually to Mt. Sinai.
Mt. Sinai was associated with God’s presence. This was the same mountain where Moses met and talked with God.  Elijah was seeking God in the midst of his insecurity.
It is curious as to why Elijah fled to begin with.  He witnessed the power of God firsthand! Why wouldn’t he trust God to provide for him?
I don’t think we have to think too hard as to possible reasons for Elijah fleeing.  We ourselves have witnessed at one time or another God’s power, provision, and grace.  That is what brings us here is it not. We believe that God is real. That God is a God of love that draws us to God’s self.  That God gives us the meaning in life that we often search aimlessly for in the world.
But, when faced with our deepest insecurities, fear, and failures, we cower or run into the wilderness to escape our reality.  For if we don’t have to face it, then maybe it would go away.
The threat on Elijah’s life seemed to turn him to come face to face with his insecurities that completely overwhelmed him. As a result, Elijah ran, wanting to die, not by Jezebel’s sword, but from starvation.  
On this mountain, Elijah did not see or hear God in any of these natural disasters, the wind, earthquake, or fire.  God was not speaking to him as he had experienced God before. For Elijah, this absence may have made him more discouraged, feeling very alone.
How much do we do the same thing?  When we are faced with our deepest insecurities, scars, and  wounds, we run.  
Run, to keep ourselves so busy we don’t have to think about what’s right at our back, for we don’t have time.  
Run, to make enough money in order to attain all our financial goals, even at the expense of our relationships. 
Run, into the arms of technology, in attempts for our minds to escape any open space to think and be.  
Now don’t get me wrong, business, money, and technology are not bad in and of themselves.  But if our use of these resources are in order to move away from spirit lead work of reconciliation with ourselves and others, then we too risk starving ourselves from God’s love and grace, from meaning and purpose, from our identity as one of God’s beloved.   
In Elijah’s case, God didn’t let Elijah starve completely.  Instead God sent a messenger to feed him just enough to keep him going.  It wasn’t until Elijah experienced the absence of God in the natural disasters from the mountaintop, that Elijah finally heard God.  This time in sheer silence.
Sheer silence…absolute, utter, complete silence.
I want you to do an experiment with me.  I want you to help me create the sounds of these natural disasters. 
Sometimes silence can be disturbing and sometimes it can be peaceful.
Another story of a storm finds Jesus and his disciples in a boat crossing the Sea of Galilee when a storm comes upon them whipping the waves and boat.  The disciples, fearing for their lives, awaken Jesus, who was sleeping through it all. Jesus commanded the wind and the waves to cease, and there was peace.  It was at the end of this boat ride that they landed on the shore of the Gerasenes and met the man possessed by demons.
It is going from one storm on the water to another, the storm raging within this man’s soul. Just as Jesus spoke peace to the water, Jesus calmed the internal storm of this man, offering him freedom from the Legion.  
I would expect the towns people to be in awe and praise God, for they no longer had to endure a crazy man running around naked.  I recognize that the swineherders had a significantly downsized herd of pigs, which I’m sure caused quite a stir.
But it is not abnormal for sometimes as one experiences healing in their journey, it often upsets the norm for someone else.  
I find family systems fascinating.  We each live within a family system, beautiful and challenging as they all are.  We learn certain communication patterns and ways of associating with one another.  When those patterns are changed by one person it can change the whole system. It can be disorienting and at times disturbing.
I think the same can be said for this man possessed by the demons.  He was accepted as the “mad man” in their community. They had learned to live with his crazy behavior.  I would venture to say he was also an easy scapegoat for the wrongs within their community.
Jesus’ healing act very well literally and figuratively threatened their economic and social rules of operating.  The swineherders lost their source of income and the community’s social order was turned on it’s head.  
Jesus freed the man at the bottom of the social order and gave him his humanity back.  Their community’s way of operating and communicating was threatened, and they wanted Jesus to leave.   
Debie Thomas, a commentator on this passage wrote, “humans often prefer to stick with the demons we know, rather than embrace the freedom we don’t.”
The Israelites exemplified this when they were freed from the Egyptians.  Initially grateful for deliverance from bondage, later they complained from their hunger pains, that they would rather be back enslaved where they at least knew where their next meal was coming from.
Our own social system is not unlike the Gerasene community.  We like to say in our democracy that everyone has a chance for a better life, but our history of western European dominance, has repeatedly demonized minorities and remains a troubling reality to this day.  Racial reconciliation is as much a need now as it was in the civil rights era, the civil war, and years of settlement.
We need to work at listening to each other, those of us who have experienced racial prejudice and those who have experienced racial privilege.  It is in looking towards one another in our humanity that we are freed from the social order that is so strong around us.  
This could pertain to any difference we face today; political, theological, faith tradition, generation.
Paul’s own conversion experience was a transformation from being bound to the Jewish law to freedom through faith in Jesus.  His being bound by the law caused him to persecute those not following the law. Paul’s freedom came from him literally becoming blinded by God’s grace which radically shaped his ministry thereafter.  
In Galations, we find Paul casting a vision to a community who was wrestling with the law and Jesus’ life and teachings.  This vision was radical for them. They were so entrenched in the social hierarchy that it would have difficult for them to see a culture where there were no distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave or free, male or female.  
Paul was risking upsetting the social order by proclaiming that it is through faith in Christ that they were all one.
This is good news!...Right?...Maybe?
That means the last will be first and the first will be last.  That means that there is no one better than another. That means that we are all God’s children.  That means we are freed from the law to live by faith from a place of belovedness, not for what we have done, but simply for who we are right now.  Embracing our belovedness sends us to be-love to someone else.  That, my friends, is extending humanity to another, to see them in their belovedness.
When we are in the space of God’s love, it is surrounded with a peaceful silence.
Elijah, wrapped in his fear, came face to face with God’s love for him, not in the storm, but in the silence.  He was given a renewed sense of his identity and purpose and was sent from that place.
Jesus, spoke peace in the storm, bringing humanity, dignity, freedom and peace in the silence.
Paul’s exortation to the Galations freed them from the bounds of the law and into God’s grace through faith.  This means that where there were social stigmas before, there were no longer.
God is with us in the same way today.  When the storms of life are raging, God stands by us.  When the silence is deafening, God is present with us. When the silence speaks the peace we long to hear, we are present with God.  Do not be afraid, God calls us each by name, we are God’s beloved.    

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Sunday, June 16, 2019

Phil Kniss: The aesthetics of the Gospel

Trinity Sunday: Beauty & Faith
Psalm 8; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15

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God speaks to us in beauty.
God shows up for us in beauty.
Or, to say it another way,
beauty is God’s love language.

If you want biblical evidence,
it’s all through the Psalms.

We read one of many creation psalms this morning,
“O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?”
Just the sight of natural beauty and grandeur,
make the psalmist contemplate the most existential question,
and pose that question to God.
“Who are we? that you love and care for us so much?”

Part of this sermon I happened to write sitting outdoors in the shade,
breeze blowing,
by Cooks Creek, a pair of mallards swimming by.
I didn’t set out to do that because of the topic.
It’s just where I found myself working.
Maybe the Spirit drew me there.

How many times have you heard someone say,
or have you yourself said,
the place where I experience God’s presence most closely,
where I hear the voice of God most clearly,
is watching a sunset,
or gazing on purple mountains,
or listening to the roar of the ocean,
or deep in the quiet of a forest.

And last night I was in the Bach Festival choir
and we sang Haydn’s great oratorio, the Creation.
“The heavens are telling the glory of God,
with wonders of his work resounds the firmament.
In every land is known the Word,
every ear will hearken; never tongue be dumb.”
I was overwhelmed by that experience of majesty last night,
and the divine voice still echoing.

God speaks to us in creation, in nature.
And I believe that not just because it’s usually quiet out in the woods,
so we can hear our thoughts better,
although that’s part of the equation.
It’s the actual aesthetics.
It’s the beauty.
It’s the wondrous order of the created world.
The symmetry, or asymmetry, of a leaf, or flower, or butterfly.
It’s the grace of a deer, or a hummingbird.

Now, I say all this
about beauty, and aesthetics, and existential mysteries,
because I am preaching on a topic
that usually uses the other side of our brain—the Trinity.
A topic known mostly by the rational, philosophical,
and intellectual arguments it has produced.

Throughout church history,
when the Trinity is spoken of, usually,
it’s someone trying to explain it in words or analogies,
trying to put it into some intelligible rational framework,
trying to say it in a way we can get our heads around it—
at least, the left side of our heads,
our left-brain, logical ways of thinking.

It has been this way for eons.
Back in the fourth century—the mid 300s—
common people on the streets
were getting into arguments with their neighbors over the Trinity.
It was a big deal.
And that’s an understatement.
There was a huge theological controversy at the time,
between Arius and Athanasius,
and Arius decided to put his radical ideas to music,
so they could spread more easily
among the common people in the streets.
The conflict was most heated in Alexandria, Egypt,
where these two theologians lived,
but it spread throughout the Roman Empire.
People on the streets were singing ditties, based on popular tunes,
the words claiming the Father alone was true God,
but that the Son was neither co-eternal nor uncreated,
since he proceeded from the Father.
One vegetable seller, I read,
when giving his customers what they ordered,
would throw in, for free, an unsolicited theological discourse,
on whether the Father was greater than the Son.

So heated was the public debate
that Emperor Constantine summoned a council to Nicaea,
in modern-day Turkey,
to settle these questions.
After months of negotiations,
they came up with the Nicene Creed of 325 A.D.
That settled some basics, about the divinity of the Son,
but it didn’t settle all questions about the Trinity.

There was another council in 381, and 451, and 589,
held in Constantinople, Chalcedon, and Toledo, respectively.
Every generation or so, they had to go through the arguments again.
Popes and kings and emperors got into the fight.
And they still didn’t get it all figured out.
So in 1054, the whole Christian world split in two, east and west.

Clearly, there was something important at stake.
Maybe to us, some arguments sound like
parsing a word or two in a creed.
But the arguments meant something to those arguing them.

Now today,
it’s not my intent to sort out the substance of all those arguments.
I don’t have enough time in a 20-minute sermon
to outline all the fine points.
And I have a basic commitment in my preaching,
not to bore you to tears.

So, I’m not dismissing the significance of theological arguments,
because I think theological debate is important,
But I want to speak of the Trinity
with a language other than logic and rationality.
I want to speak of the beauty of the Trinity.

We opened this worship service with a hymn
you may or may not have paid much attention to,
since we were still in the gathering mode,
still getting settled into our space.
So turn again to #2 in the blue hymnal.
This is an old Mennonite hymn,
that borrows heavily from the aesthetic sensibilities
of high church liturgies.
Notice all the phrases that sound like it could have been written
by a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox hymn writer.
Starting with the phrase, “holy place,”
and then “perfumes sweet”
“golden censers”
“fire of sacrifice”
“saints bending”
“holy light”
“holy bread”
and other words and metaphors that conjure up
the pure sensory experience of worship.
“Smells and bells” if you will.
Now for the real surprise, look at the date and author of the text.
1901, S. F. Coffman.
S. F. Coffman was born at Dale Enterprise, a few miles out Rt. 33,
although he grew up mostly in Elkhart, Indiana,
and raised his family in Ontario.

It was in 1901, the year he wrote this hymn,
that back here in his home community
Virginia Mennonites divided
over several issues of worship order—
like Sunday School, ordination by lot, and revival meetings.
Coffman’s father was a famous revival preacher.
That division formed the Old Order Mennonite group in this area,
which continues to worship, to this day,
using the same old order of things,
same worship practices,
same hymnal,
same unadorned meetinghouses.

If you’ve ever been inside Pleasant View O.O. Mennonite Church
just west of Dayton, built in 1902,
then you know exactly
what all Mennonite worship spaces in our area
looked like in the year this hymn was written.
There were no golden censers to be found.
No incense.
No holy fire or holy light or holy bread.
They were, and are, plain spaces.
White walls.
Wooden benches.
Only a few cushions.
No pictures on the wall.
No crosses.
No religious symbols of any kind.

Yet, S. F. Coffman, whose faith took shape
in a stark and stripped down worship space like that,
was able to write this hymn.
With highly sensory metaphors, he could conjure up
the visual, aural, olfactory, and tactile experience of beauty,
in the worship of the Triune God.
That’s a paradox that strikes me every time we sing this hymn.

Someday I want to ask some of my Old Order friends
if they know this hymn,
and what the words conjure up for them.
I know they appreciate beauty.
But it is certainly expressed differently.

But back to the aesthetics of the Trinity.
Why focus on beauty?

Brian Zahnd is a pastor, author, and speaker I respect.
I’ve heard him in person several times and been inspired by him.
The pastor of a large non-denominational church in Missouri,
he preaches a biblical Gospel of peace,
and has a passion for Christ-centered social justice.
Kind of an outlier among evangelical preachers,
a friend of Anabaptists,
and making an impact in the Christian world.

He’s written a book entitled, Beauty Will Save The World:
Rediscovering the Allure and Mystery of Christianity

He draws on the ancient tradition of artists, sages, and theologians
who connect the beautiful with the sacred,
who see in our art our longing for God.

He suggests we live in a day when pragmatism
and utilitarian “morals”
have largely displaced beauty as a value.

Here’s part of what he wrote,
“We are generally more accustomed to defend Christianity
in terms of its truth and goodness.
But beauty also belongs to the Christian faith.
And beauty has a way of sneaking past our defenses
and speaking to us in unique ways . . .
Everything about Jesus Christ is beautiful!
His life, his miracles, his grace, his teaching—
even his death, and certainly his resurrection—
they are all inimitably beautiful.

A Christianity enchanted by this beauty,
formed by this beauty,
and reflecting this beauty,
has the opportunity to present to a skeptical and jaded world
an aspect of the gospel that has been too rare for far too long.
Where truth and goodness fail to win an audience,
beauty may once again captivate and draw those it enchants
into the kingdom of saving grace.

He adds,
“Our task is not to protest the world into a certain moral conformity,
but to attract the world to the saving beauty of Christ.
We do this best . . . by enacting a beautiful presence
within the world.
The Western church has had four centuries
of viewing salvation in a mechanistic manner,
presenting it as a plan, system or formula.
It would be much better if we would return
to viewing salvation as a [beautiful] song we sing.”

I think the same thing could be said about the doctrine of the Trinity.
It’s something of beauty,
to take in,
to contemplate with wonder and awe.
It’s not something to win a rational argument about.

The doctrine of the Trinity
is simply a way for us to describe in words,
what we experience when we start to inhabit the Gospel story,
when we dwell in the scriptures,
and start to grasp the story of God and God’s people.

What is more beautiful than the affirmation of faith
we heard from Romans 5 this morning?
“Therefore, since we are justified by faith,
we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,
through whom we have obtained access
to this grace in which we stand;
and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.
And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings,
knowing that suffering produces endurance,
and endurance produces character,
and character produces hope,
and hope does not disappoint us,
because God’s love has been poured into our hearts
through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

There . . . is the Trinity—
not in a wordy rational proposition,
but in sublime words of exaltation.
This is not a triangular flow-chart for the Godhead,
showing how neatly it fits together,
and how Jesus Christ and the Spirit proceed from the Father,
or is it that begotten?
No, the apostle Paul,
who can get pretty dense and wordy other places,
here is just overflowing with giddy praise
for the God who shows up, in grace and glory, everywhere.
It’s like he’s standing at the edge of the canyon,
pointing to the west, and saying,
Would you look at that sunset??
It’s just gorgeous!

And Jesus himself spoke of the coming of the Spirit,
as a wonderful treasure to marvel over,
not a new plan or formula to memorize.
In fact, in our reading from John 16 this morning,
it was almost like Jesus was warning us
not to get caught in the weeds,
but to enjoy the big picture.
He said, in v. 12,
“I still have many things to say to you,
but you cannot bear them now.”
In other words, don’t worry about it!
“When the Spirit of truth comes,
he will guide you into all the truth;
for he will not speak on his own,
but will speak whatever he hears,
and he will declare to you the things that are to come.
He will glorify me,
because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

The Holy Trinity is a thing of beauty.
It’s a beautiful thing to discover a God
that meets us wherever we need to be met.
God is the all-powerful and just creator of the infinite universe.
And God also comes and lives among us,
moves into the neighborhood,
shares our humanity,
shares even our suffering and brokenness.
And God is present with us by the Spirit, in our very breath,
God’s Spirit shows up and does not leave us bereft,
always and ever available to us.

This, our one Holy God
is both power and presence
shows justice and mercy
inhabits the material and spiritual.

That is beautiful.
It’s just beautiful.
It draws us in.
It is alluring, in the best sense of the word.

Contemplating the Trinity,
is like examining a multi-faceted gemstone that reflects the light
in different colors and intensities,
depending on the angle from which we’re viewing it.
The Trinity helps us see God from different angles,
all beautiful in their own way.

Speaking of aesthetics,
just for the joy of it,
we are going to sing a song we sang last Sunday,
on Pentecost Sunday.
It worked for that Sunday.
It works for this one.

Because it exults in the delight of a multi-faceted God,
who shimmers like light shining through a prism.
Sing the Journey 16 – Praise with joy the world’s Creator

—Phil Kniss, June 16, 2019

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Sunday, June 9, 2019

Phil Kniss: Setting the world on fire

Pentecost: Spirit & Word
Acts 2:1-21

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I need a more substantial flame here beside me today
for this sermon about setting the world on fire.

Every Pentecost Sunday
we have an abundance of biblical symbols to choose from—
symbols that represent the Holy Spirit—
dove, fire, wind, breath, river, light, oil.
This time, we focus on fire.

I love fire.  And I’m terrified by it.

Fire has calmed and healed my spirits.
Since I was old enough to remember anything,
our family would go camping every summer.
Sitting around a campfire is about
the most soothing and peaceful activity I can think of.
And to me, a wood-burning stove on a winter morning,
makes the most rustic, remote and crude mountain cabin,
into a sanctuary of beauty and warmth and welcome.
And every month, first Wednesday, when we have Taizé services,
I relish the moment in that service
when I can hold a couple of burning tea candles on my hand,
contemplate the presence of Christ,
and place them on the cross with a silent prayer.

Fire has also taken me to the edges of fear and desperation.
I still vividly recall my 12-year-old self in Sarasota, Florida,
standing on top of our shingled roof,
watching a wildfire in the scrub pines next to our house,
seeing the flames get closer and closer.
At my parents’ instructions, I held a garden hose in my hand
to keep the roof wet,
so the falling embers wouldn’t catch it on fire.
In much more recent memory, a month or so ago,
I had the opportunity, for the first time,
to use the fire extinguisher I keep mounted on the wall,
close to where I roast coffee in our basement.
I had gotten distracted and stepped away from the roaster,
so the green coffee beans went
from my preferred medium brown roast,
past the dark Italian Roast,
to the very rare Spontaneous Combustion Roast,
which is hard to find in a coffee shop.
Thankfully, I had the foresight
to have a smoke alarm and fire extinguisher at the ready,
but even so, it was a high-adrenaline experience
I don’t wish to repeat.

Fire is just that way—
sometimes welcomed and sought,
sometimes feared and fought.

Fire is life . . . fire is death.
Fire is explosive . . . fire is gentle.
Fire is all-consuming . . . fire is barely noticed.
Fire is full of passion . . . fire is full of peace.

Fire is the Holy Spirit.

On the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit came, Luke writes in Acts 2:3,
“Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them,
and a tongue rested on each of them.”
And ever since, we have associated the Holy Spirit with fire.
That’s why, on Pentecost, like many other churches,
we often decorate in red, or wear red.
As I think of fire, in all its contrast and complexity,
I appreciate even more how appropriate it is
as a symbol of the Spirit.

We know that personal spiritual experience varies widely.
It varies by personality.
by emotional make-up,
by theological assumptions,
by social context and circumstances,
It varies according to all kinds of factors.

The Christian church over its long history,
has unfortunately suffered intense conflict and painful schisms,
over disagreements about how the Holy Spirit works.
The tendency has always been to lock in on one modus operandi,
where the Spirit worked in a way that was
meaningful or transformative for me at a given moment in time,
and then make it normative.

Normative for myself, which is sad enough,
because I might miss out
when the Spirit shows up later in my life,
in a form I don’t recognize,
because it doesn’t fit the pattern I established.
Or, even worse, normative for others,
so I pass judgement on followers of Jesus
who have a different way of connecting with the presence of God,
rather than rejoicing with them in their joy,
even if it’s beyond my understanding or comfort level.

We may one time experience the Holy Spirit
as lightning bolt, explosive, exhilarating, all-consuming,
and then sadly overlook it when the Spirit shows up
in a whisper, in candlelight.

Or we may experience the fire of the Holy Spirit
as quiet warmth,
like the quilts we wrapped around the seniors the other Sunday,
and we try to make that experience permanent.
So we ignore the Holy Spirit when it comes
wanting to throw off our quilts and turn our lives upside down.

In Acts 2, the coming of the Spirit was of the lightning bolt variety,
the throwing-off-the-quilt variety,
the knocking-us-off-guard variety.
It’s precisely what the disciples needed, at that moment in time,
while they were wrapped in their quilts, so to speak,
huddling for warmth and protection behind closed doors,
in the upper room.

When the Spirit exploded into their world,
Luke called it “the rush of a violent wind,” v. 2.
The presence was so powerful that
“it filled the entire house where they were sitting.”
It was a visible and audible phenomenon so huge
that a crowd gathered from all over Jerusalem,
bewildered, amazed, astonished.
In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit was a wildfire,
a fire that enabled these frightened, sheltering disciples
to break out boldly into the world
and lead a new people movement.

But that’s not the only story of the Spirit and the disciples.
The Gospel of John tells about a time
Jesus stood before them, in that same room, post-resurrection,
and just breathed on them, wwhhooooo . . .
“Receive the Holy Spirit.”
That’s all.
No earthquake.
No house-rattling wind . . . just wwhhooooo . . .

That is the way of the Holy Spirit.
That is the way of fire.
Sometimes it burns like an inferno.
And leaves in its wake, a changed landscape.
Sometimes it burns like a candle.
Slowly, but surely, bringing light and warmth.
But it’s the same Spirit. And the same fire.

The question for us, in this time, this space, this historical moment,
is what will it look like,
if we open ourselves to the fire of the Holy Spirit here and now?
will it feel like a warm quilt and a tea light?
or like a conflagration that changes everything?
or parts of both?
And how will we know,
when Christians acting in the name of Jesus,
and claiming to follow the Holy Spirit,
do all manner of things,
that make us scratch our head.
So what sort of Spirit is really at work in them?
Do we embrace or reject
this spiritual expression?
How can we be discerning?

Well, fire, you know, is fundamentally a rearrangement of molecules;
it is radical chemical change.
The physical matter that is burning doesn’t cease to exist.
But its molecules break apart and reattach in different ways,
and take on new forms—
carbon, water, oxygen, hydrogen.
That’s what happens when a wax candle burns down.
That’s what happens when a whole mountainside forest burns down.

And, I would argue,
that’s what happens when the Holy Spirit burns in us,
and in the church.
Our basic matter doesn’t cease to exist,
but we get rearranged.
We get re-shaped into the likeness of Christ.
Remember, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus
living on in this world.
The Spirit’s role, as I said in this pulpit recently,
is to advocate for the Jesus way,
when we’re getting pushed in opposite directions.
So when the fire of the Spirit burns in us,
we should come out looking more like Jesus.

That’s the best way to evaluate and discern Holy Spirit fire.
Does it make us more loving?
Do we live with more joy?
Do we find a deeper peace in life?
Does it make us more patient with others?
Are we more generous?
Are we less focused on self, and more focused on others?

The mighty outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost,
was not just a fireworks show
for the sake of bringing excitement.
Yes, it was a stunning display.
It drew crowds.

But the actual miracle that happened that day
was not the sound of the violent wind,
it was not tongues of fire resting on their heads,
it was not the ability
to speak and understand different languages.
The real miracle of Pentecost was that
the fire of the Holy Spirit rearranged the molecules
in the lives of these terrified followers of Jesus.

They became more loving.
Acts 2:42 says “they devoted themselves to fellowship.”
They became more joyful.
Acts 2:46,47. They “praised God . . . with glad hearts.”
They were more generous with the needy.
Acts 2:45. With “generous hearts”
they distributed their possessions to those in need.
They moved from being self-centered to being other-centered.
Acts 2:47. They “had the goodwill of all the people.”
So much so, that without having to institute any
mass evangelism program to try to convince people to join,
they became a winsome community.
Acts 2:47. “Day by day the Lord added to their number
those who were being saved.”
The fire of the Spirit rearranged the lives of the people,
and the life of their community.
It transformed them
from bickering, competitive, confused, and fearful disciples,
to a sharing, loving, vibrant, and growing Christian community.

Most significantly,
it moved them out into the world—
the same world they had just been hiding from.

That should be the same tell-tale sign for us today.
The wind and flame of the Holy Spirit
does not show up so we can be happy and joyful and prosperous.
It shows up so we can set the world on fire.
And I mean that in the way I’ve just been talking about fire.
I don’t mean burn everything down by force.
I mean helping it look a little more like Jesus.
I mean to extend the real presence and work of Christ
into a world that needs it.

As you know,
there are lots of people these days trying to set the world on fire.
Seems that way especially when election seasons roll around,
because everyone claims to know what the world needs—
which is . . . them in a political office,
so that everything we don’t like will change for the better.

But it feels like I’ve been tracking this sentiment in our culture
for a long time now.
There is so much over-the-top braggadocio about how right I am,
and over-the-top vitriol about how wrong you are.
No one is happy with the world the way it is,
so lots of people are trying to get the rest of us fired up,
they’re trying to set the world on fire,
trying to get the world to change,
to finally be on the right side, at almost any cost.

Now . . . is Holy Spirit fire in some of that?
I’m sure of it.
With all the movements for change afoot,
there must be some inspired by the fire of the Holy Spirit.
How do we figure out which ones?

Same criteria.
Does it look like Jesus?

Look around for a change-movement you are drawn to—
whether a religious, political, or social movement.
Observe the driving forces behind it,
the content of the message,
and the character of the messengers.

If the fire is one of sacrificial love for the whole world,
if it is speaking hard truth to the powers,
if it is drawing near to the poor and the outcast,
if it is bringing healing
to the most deeply wounded and forgotten in our society,
if it is willing to suffer if need be,
or be despised by the public,
in order to be true to a higher moral calling,
if it is all about lifting up the downtrodden,
and opening the doors to those standing out in the cold,
if it is making us better human beings
who are known for our love and compassion,
if it’s all that,
then let’s go all in,
it’s probably the fire of the Holy Spirit at work.

But if it demonizes opponents to win support for its cause,
if it draws attention to or worships its own leaders,
if it ignores people in need,
if it cozies up to the rich and powerful,
then let’s walk away, and fast.
This is not the fire of the Spirit.
This is a different kind of fire.
It’s a fire Jesus would not recognize.

Or to use language from Leviticus, in the King James Version,
it’s a “strange fire.”

Actually, that phrase appears in Lev. 10:1,
when the sons of Aaron the High Priest,
brought a “strange fire” into the sacred worship space,
and put this strange, external, unauthorized fire into the censer,
and worshipped God with it.
then, it says, a “fire from the Lord consumed them, and they died.”

Not saying this is the way God will work today.
But it at least gives me pause.
That maybe God takes it seriously, and is even angered,
when people who claim to worship God, and follow Jesus,
do so with a “strange fire” that has no resemblance
to the life and character and ministry of Jesus.

There’s a lot of that going around these days,
in the halls of the Christian powers that be.
Stay far away, I say.
And move, instead, toward the transformative, loving,
compassionate, humble fire of the Spirit,
that talks, acts, and lives like Jesus.

That is the way we as a church, might,
after all is said and done,
have set the world on fire.

—Phil Kniss, June 9, 2019

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