Sunday, May 31, 2020

Phil Kniss: “Yes, but how?”

Easter to Pentecost: Following the Light of Resurrection
Pentecost Sunday: "Will the fire change you?"

Acts 2:1-21; John 20:19-23

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Our worship theme today is a question: “Will the fire change you?”

I should do a deep dive into the question,
    explore its depth and complexity and nuance.
    Except, there is no nuance.
    I can answer the question in a word, and I did.
        The first word of my title is the answer: Yes.
        But for kicks, I added two more words.
            Just to complicate things.

Of course fire changes us. By definition.
    Fire is physical matter undergoing transformation by heat.
        Molecules are pulled apart and put together in new ways.
        From whatever it was . . . to carbon and hydrogen and water
            and who knows what all.
        Nothing that catches on fire—nothing—remains the same.

    So the two words I added, “but how?” is the real question here.
    Will the fire change us?
        “Yes, but how” will the fire change us?
    That implies we have some choice.
        What kind of change will we allow?

    But before we poke around in the embers of that question,
        we need to complicate it some more.
    Especially now.
    Because fire is a metaphor
        applied to more than the Holy Spirit.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a raging fire
    that is changing us.
    That fire is not the Holy Spirit.
    Oh, the Holy Spirit is absolutely present as we suffer in this fire,
        but that fire is a manifestation of evil.

Other fires are burning in our lives right now.
The most apparent one to this congregation
    is the fire of unexpected loss and grief.
    That fire is not the Holy Spirit.
    Oh, the Holy Spirit is certainly with us in this fire
        of sudden and unwelcomed death.
        But I will not equate that fire with God’s good Spirit of life.

Other fires are burning in our country . . . literally and figuratively.
There is the fire of racial injustice,
    still deeply woven into the fabric and structure of our society.
    The fire sparked in Minneapolis this week,
        and now spreading all over the country,
        is not only the story of a couple bad cops,
            and one victim,
            and a mob mentality getting out of hand.
    It can only be explained as the dry tinder of systemic racism,
        lying on the ground all over our land,
        lying at our very feet,
            which all of us have ignored for too long,
            have failed to really listen to those impacted by it.
        And the spark became a wildfire.
    Again, God is not absent here.
        The Spirit is present in this fire.
            God is close to those who grieve or are oppressed.
        But I would not equate this tinder-box
            with the fire of the Holy Spirit.

    The life-giving Spirit of God is in opposition to
        a lot of what this world experiences as out-of-control fire.

Yes, we know from the Pentecost story in Acts,
    that the Spirit does at times act like fire.
    Those disciples in the upper room
        had seeming tongues of fire fall on their heads,
            and they were empowered,
            they were transformed.
    But how do we know one fire from another?
    Because we must distinguish between them.

We must discern when to open ourselves to Holy fire,
    and when to fight un-holy fire that threatens to consume us.
    Yes . . . but how?

I suggest we walk toward the un-holy fire.
    Yes, we head toward the flames
        with purpose and intentionality and preparation.
    We prepare by opening ourselves more fully
        to the transforming fire of the Holy Spirit,
        and let that Holy-Spirit fire burn within us,
        so that God’s Spirit might be let loose
            to tame the wildfire all around us.
In other words,
    we fight fire with fire, spiritually speaking.

That’s exactly what forest firefighters are trained to do,
    when a wildfire is out of control.
    They know to walk toward the inferno,
        carrying other fire with them.
    And they intentionally start other fires, controlled burns,
        that essentially burn up all the available fuel,
        so when the wildfire reaches that area,
            there is nothing left to feed the flames, and the fire goes out.

Maybe there . . . is a lesson on living in the Spirit,
    in a world burning up with a spirit not of God.

Anyone of us are at risk of being consumed
    by the un-holy fires raging in our world right now.
You may justifiably be angered
    by the evil, the injustice, the oppression.
    That’s okay, stay angry at that.
You may be overcome with grief
    by all the unnecessary suffering in the world.
    That’s okay, lean into the grief, let grief do its work.
You may be incensed by all the inhumanity,
    all the poor excuses for moral leadership
        by those in leadership positions.
    That’s okay, don’t look away. Stay incensed.

    But you still have a choice in the matter.
    We still have options.
        Will we be consumed?
        Will we lose ourselves in the flames,
            because we forgot who we were,
            and only added more fuel to the fire?

    Or . . . will we receive this as an opportunity to open ourselves
        more fully to the Spirit of God dwelling within us?
    Will we carefully carry and tend to the holy fire within us,
        laying our small selves and our egoistic desires on the altar,
        and allow God to change us with this divine fire?

This is not mystical escapism.
This is the way a life in Christ works.
    If we are not intentional about tending the Holy Spirit fire within,
    If we do not purposely open ourselves for God’s transformation,
        we will be consumed.

Whether it be the COVID-19 fire,
    or the fire of racism and injustice,
    or the fire of political corruption and abuse of power,
    or the fire of untimely deaths and ravaging diseases,
    or any of the many flames of general human suffering and cruelty,
        we are at risk of being consumed.

If all we do is stand back,
    and gaze open-jawed at the inferno,
    the fire may change us alright,
        but it may not be the change we need.
    We may well cave in to the depths of despair,
        and lose the battle.
    We may well let our demons get the better of us
        and become callous and cruel ourselves.

On the other hand . . . we might also choose to open ourselves
    to the transforming fire of Holy Spirit,
    the Spirit that looks like Jesus.

Spiritually speaking, this is fighting fire with fire.
    This is clearing away the flammable underbrush,
        all the stuff lying at our feet that shouldn’t be there.
    And with the carefully aimed and intentional fire of the Spirit,
        it gets cleared away,
        leaving a fire-break of compassion,
            a fire-break of willingness to listen,
            a fire-break of a choice to be present with the suffering,
                of a dogged pursuit of justice,
                of a commitment to love sacrificially.
        Then, when the un-holy fire gets close to us,
            it has no fuel remaining,
            it can only spit and sputter and go out.

The fire-break must be intentional on our part.
    But it is not our doing.
    Transformation is what the fire of the Holy Spirit does,
        when it’s kindled in us, and allowed to burn.

Ruth Haley Barton, in her book,
    Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership,
    a book I’m reading right now . . . because I need to,
    says this about the transforming work of the Spirit.

I quote.
“In the process of transformation the Spirit of God moves us
    from behaviors motivated by fear and self-protection
        to trust and abandonment to God;
    from selfishness and self-absorption
        to freely offering the gifts of the authentic self . . .”

And then, just as my good Mennonite duty-bound work-ethic
    is about to kick in and say,
    “I can do this, I should do this, I will do this,”
    she shuts me down with these words,
    “This kind of change
        is not something we can produce or manufacture for ourselves
        but it is what we most need . . .”
    “Lest we are tempted to view this as a glorified self-help project . . .
        it is important for us to embrace spiritual transformation
            as a process that is full of mystery.
        It is a phenomenon . . . outside the range
            of what human beings can accomplish on their own.”

    In other words . . . It’s the fire. It’s not us.
    It’s about accepting the fire,
        being in a place of solitude and silence,
            soaking in scripture,
    It’s letting our souls be warmed by the fire that looks like Jesus,
        fire that fills us with compassion for the suffering,
        and a genuine tenderness and love for the other,
            even the other who might look like a threat.

Our prayer today is not,
    “God, give me a little boost, so I can manage to do this.”
Our prayer is more simple: “Come, Holy Spirit.”
    Come, holy fire, and burn in me,
        and burn away hatred and bitterness and self-absorption,
    Come, Holy Spirit, come.

—Phil Kniss, May 31, 2020

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