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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Pentecost, June 6, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Exodus 3:1-12 and Acts 2:1-21
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

As I’ve contemplated flame this week, I’ve found my thoughts drifting to fire.  I like to light a candle to mark a time as sacred.  I have gotten lost in the single flame of a candle.  And who doesn’t like the candles on a birthday cake, even if there needs to be almost two-thousand of them?  But still, my thoughts kept drifting from flame to fire.

Twice in my life, fires in woodstoves have kept me warm in otherwise very cold conditions.  One winter when I was living in western Washington, there was a windstorm that brought down many branches and trees.  The branches and trees took down electrical lines.  And because I lived in a ruralish area, it took a full week before power was restored.  My furnace was a heat pump, so I moved into the family room of my home where there was a woodstove in the fireplace.  I dragged the mattress from the guest bed down there and made a little nest for myself.  And each night, I lit a fire, warmed up the room, then turned down the flow of air into the stove to keep the fire burning slowly through the night.

The other time happened when I was staying in my father’s cabin in New Hampshire during the first week of September.  Labor Day weekend, the temperature plummeted, as it can do in New Hampshire.  It got so cold I woke up in the middle of the night.  I got a fire going in the woodstove in the cabin and about an hour or two later the little cabin had warmed enough that I could get back to sleep.

When I think about fire, I think of it contained in a woodstove or a fireplace or a campfire.  I think of it warming me and comforting me and stilling my spirit.  I think of seasoned maple and pine logs snapping and popping as they burn.  The closest thing to a destructive fire I’ve experienced was a chimney fire I had that I didn’t find out about until I contemplated switching insurance companies and the new company insisted on a building inspection.  It had burned hot enough to crack the terracotta flue liner, but briefly enough I never knew it happened.

That’s fire’s paradox, isn’t it?  On one hand, fire gives warmth and light, and it lets us cook and read late into the night.  And on the other hand, fire destroys and consumes.  It devours whole towns, annihilates whole cities.  “Fire is essential for life and civilization, and fire is a threat to both.”[1]

The big challenge that cold night in the cabin was that I had to get out from under the pile of blankets to get a fire going.  Well, that was the first challenge.  The second challenge was that I needed more wood than was inside and I needed kindling.  So I had to go outside for those.  The third challenge was that my father and step-mother had recycled the newspaper, so I had to scrounge for something to light with the matches that would light the kindling that would light the logs.  The challenge the next day was getting things in the wood stove cool enough that I was comfortable leaving the cabin for a paddle around the lake.

“We could say the same of life with God – we cannot always summon a sense of God’s presence, even when we do the things we were taught in Sunday school would work; in other seasons, God roars into our lives in ways we wish we could avoid, tamp down, put out entirely.”[2]  It takes the match to get the newspaper burning, and it take the burning newspaper to light the kindling, and it takes the burning kindling to ignite the log.  It is the rare person who can burn for God without some external source of heat.  I know I didn’t get there on my own.  My mother and Sunday School teachers and friends helped lay the fire and ignite the newspaper.

And once the fires going, it takes tending.  I know I’ve built plenty of fires that were much more smoke than flame.  And I’ve tended fires that got burning so hot and fast that they consumed the fuel in no time at all.  And I’ve tended fires that weren’t sufficiently fed or that got too spread out and then cooled off and went out.  And so it is in my friendship with Jesus.  My zeal might burn too fast, or it might cool down and flicker out.  Either way, the flame is extinguished.  Sure, there are habits, practices, I can engage in to tend this fire, to keep the flame of God’s presence near.  Still, sometimes the flames leap and dance, not because of anything I did.  Sometimes the flames die, despite everything I did.[3]

“God appears as flame again and again in scripture.  God reveals God’s self to Moses in the burning bush, and then, centuries later, at the first Pentecost after Jesus’ death, the Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples as flame.  Those two episodes might be the most familiar flames in scripture, but there are many other instances of God drawing near to people as or in fire:  God’s presence as a ‘flaming torch’ in the covenant [making] of Genesis 15; the pillar of fire that leads the Israelites through the wilderness [into freedom]; and God’s glory is ‘like a consuming fire’ on Sinai.…

“What might all these flames mean for our friendship with God?

“Often, in scripture, especially in the prophets, fire seems to stand principally for God’s anger, God’s jealousy.”[4]  But even there, it is not just the consuming fire, the destructive fire.  Even God’s anger and God’s jealousy need not be a conflagration.  According the Malachi, God is like a refiner’s fire, that burns off the impurities leaving only the precious metal.  Sometimes fire’s destructiveness is also regenerative.  “Fires can clear weaker trees from a forest and therefore allow the healthier, larger trees to flourish.  Soil nourished by burned vegetation becomes more nutritious for the trees the remain.  And some trees require fire to survive,”[5] like the lodgepole pine and several other conifers.

“Could the Bible’s fiery imagery suggest that God’s destruction is regenerative?  That God destroys not me but my sin, my hardness of heart, my fear, precisely so that I might be renewed? …

“Maybe, if God is fire, we are a grove of ponderosa pines.  Without the heat and burn of God’s flame, our pinecones would remain closed tight around the seeds that are needed for our thriving and growth and new life.”[6]

The rabbis note that it takes some time – five minutes, seven minutes, ten minutes – for a bush to burn.  But the miracle, they say, is not that the bush wasn’t consumed as it burned.  The miracle is the Moses paid attention, that he paid attention long enough to notice that the shrubbery was not being consumed.  “Only after God saw that Moses had stood still long enough to notice the bush in its unconsuming fire did God call out to him.…  Attentiveness, apparently, was the key attribute God needed for his chief prophet, deliverer, and friend.  God needed a prophet and friend who could stop and stay still and look with focus and concentration; God needed a prophet and friend who could really see.  God could have called to Moses in the form of a fellow shepherd, or in the form of a rock, or in the form of a breeze.  Instead, God arrested the attention of Moses as a flame.”[7]

This doesn’t surprise me.  As I said, I can get lost in the flame of a candle.  I can sit in silence as a fire crackles and hisses and flames curl around the logs.  At one point this week, I thought about playing the yule log during this sermon.  I thought it might be funny, and calming, and maybe even comforting.  I decided it would also be too distracting.  Like me, too many of you would just get lost in the flames.

But maybe that’s why the burning bush worked as a way to call to Moses.  “Fire captivates.  To encounter the blazing God is to encounter the God who can hold, and wants to hold, our gaze.”[8]

I suppose one invitation form the story of the burning bush is the invitation to notice how busy our lives are, to notice how hard it is to notice.  “We are all so distracted, rushing so hurriedly through the day that we barely notice our friends or ourselves,”[9] let alone God.  We get distracted, sending text messages, checking Facebook, worrying about children.

But this isn’t the only lesson.  God wants to hold our gaze.  “The God who wants to fix our attention and say, Here, look here, look at Me, don’t look away – that God is a lover.  That’s what lovers do, after all.  They gaze at each other utterly not distracted, utterly focused in their longing and their delight.”[10]

In her book, Wearing God, the book we’ve used as the basis of this sermon series, Lauren Winner tells a story[11] that is, unfortunately, too long, to simply read to you.  The story centers around two basins.  One basin is the basin she and her friend Isaac take every year on Maundy Thursday to what she says is “a small, ineffectual protest at an immigration detention center in Cary, North Carolina.  Every year, a stalwart band of Holy Week pilgrims gathers in a grocery parking lot in Cary, and … [they] process to the immigration detention center and set up two chairs.  One chair is occupied by whoever is having her feet washed, and the other chair is left empty, as a reminder of the people who are absent from us – from our families and our churches – because of current immigration law.”

On one particular Maundy Thursday, Winner’s thoughts wander to another basin, a basin carried my Nhat Chi Mai to a Buddhist temple in Saigon on May 16, 1967.  “Her friends assumed she was there for the traditional washing of the Buddha, but her basin was full of gasoline, not water.  Nhat Chi Mai poured the gasoline over herself and lit herself on fire.  She sat in the lotus position while she burned, and she prayed, and she died.”  She had written to the U.S. government, “I pray that the flame that is consuming my body will burn away all ambition and hatred which have been pushing many of us into Hell of the soul and creating so much suffering among human beings.  I pray that the human race will be able to inherit Buddha’s Compassion, Jesus’ love, and the legacy of man’s humaneness.”

Reflecting on the differences in their basins – Nhat’s held gasoline; Winner’s holds water – Winner writes, “It is a venerated thing in the Christian tradition to imitate Christ even to the point of death,…  I wonder what kind of faith one would have to have – in the resurrection, in the resurrected body, in setting your treasure by in heaven – in order to burn yourself to death in protest.  I am not alone in not knowing what to think:  even Buddhists and Christians in Vietnam in the 1960s did not know what to think about self-immolation.  Was this truly a nonviolent protest?  Was it worship or suicide?”

“There’s a relationship that I can’t quite pin down between Nhat Chi Mai’s body and the burning bush.  Here body’s being consumed and the bush’s refusal to be consumed – both command attention.

“It is not just attention to the truth about ourselves that God’s flame can direct.  God’s flame also wants to focus our attention on the world.…  Before you can act, first you have to see.”  In a way, it can be argued that prayer is not productive.  Prayer does not get God to change an immigration policy or to stop a war.  It is not a means to an end.  And yet, I know that my own halting history of prayer, that engaging various forms of prayer is forming me into a person with the capacity to attend to God and to God’s world.

As we move into a short time of reflection, I have a few questions for you to consider as we conclude this sermon series:
What sustains your spiritual fire?
How is God’s fire regenerative in your spiritual life?
How is God captivating your attention?
What situation in your life or in the world is God calling your attention to?

[1] Lauren F. Winner, Wearing God, (New York: HarperOne, 2015) 206.

[2] Ibid, 208.

[3] Ibid, 208-209.

[4] Ibid, 209-210.

[5] Ibid, 210.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 214-215.

[8] Ibid, 215.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, 221-225.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 31, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  1 Corinthians 3:9-15 and Psalm 98
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

What images come to mind when you hear the word ‘judgment’?

I did a Google image search on the word ‘judgment’ and the first big swath of images were of gavels.  There were a few scales, the scales we associate with the legal system.  I had to dig down a ways to get to an image that had to with anything else – like decision-making.  The sense of ‘judgment’ in the American zeitgeist connects to the criminal justice system.

And that connection links the word ‘judgment’ to condemnation and punishment.  That’s not too surprising when you consider that the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with 724 people locked up per 100,000 people in the general population.  That’s a rate that is five times the world median.[1]  So it’s not surprising that we associate ‘judgment’ with condemnation and punishment when you look at how our jails and prisons function, especially compared to prisons in another country.

Did you notice that quick clip of someone at a TED Talk?  He mentioned a difference sort of approach to prisons – from condemnation and punishment, to restorative justice.  Restorative justice repairs the harm caused by crime.  It seeks to restore (thus, its name) balance, harmony, and well-being.[2]

While I’d love for you all to think about criminal justice reform and maybe even work for it, that’s not the subject of today’s sermon.  I bring this up to prime the pump.  The focus on today’s sermon is on God’s judgment.  Which brings me to some other images.

“The Last Judgment”

Classical paintings of the final judgment are filled with images of condemnation and punishment.  This is “The Last Judgment” by Michelangelo.  It is the altarpiece behind the altar in the Sistine Chapel.  “While traditional medieval last judgments showed figures dressed according to their social positions, Michelangelo created a new standard.  His groundbreaking concept of the event shows figures equalized in their nudity, stripped bare of rank.  The artist portrayed the separation of the blessed and the damned by showing the saved ascending on the left and the damned descending on the right.”[3]  Condemnation and punishment.

I’m not sure how this view of God became so predominant in Christian theology.  It probably has something to do with the co-opting of Christianity by Empire, and the primary image of God moving from Jesus’ metaphor of “Father” to something more like Caesar.  Certainly literal interpretations of Matthew 25 influenced things.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,…  Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’”[4]  And, the passage goes on to also talk about eternal punishment.

The tough part comes when we realizes that we are all goats, that we have all failed to notice Jesus in his distressing disguise, at least some of the time.  What hope do we have?

Our hope, I think is two-fold.  First, we don’t always miss Jesus, so we’re not just goats – we’re good goats.  Second, God’s judgment isn’t punitive.  God’s judgment is restorative.

Brian McLaren says that “in biblical times, good judges did more than condemn or punish.  They worked to set things right, to restore balance, harmony, and well-being.  Their justice was restorative, not just punitive.  The final goal of judgment was to curtail or convert all that was evil so that good would be free to fun wild.”[5]  And he says that this is God’s form of judgment, too – a judgment that sets things right.

This sense of God’s judgment undergirds Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous hope, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”[6]  This is actually a paraphrase of comment by the early 19th century transcendentalist Theodore Parker predicting the inevitable success of the abolitionist cause:  “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience.  And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”[7]

As a Christian, my hope is that all in me that has not yet been put right in my lifetime will be put right by God in the life to come.  I do not see it being put right by the torture of hellfire and brimstone.  Yes, I now there have been plenty of Christian preachers who warn of tortures to come if we don’t find holiness in this life, but I don’t think that’s how God works.  In fact, I think that’s a misinterpretation of God’s use of fire in judgment.

In the passage we heard from 1 Corinthians, Paul uses the image of fire as the tool God uses to burn away shoddy construction.  The foundation of our lives is Jesus Christ, he says, and it’s up to us to build on that foundation.  We can use quality items to build our lives, or we can use substandard items.  God’s judgment will burn away the substandard items, saving only us and that from our lives that is good

McLaren expands on this metaphor:  “So if some of us have constructed our lives like a shoddy builder, using worthless building materials, there won’t be much of our life’s story left.  We will experience the purification of judgment as loss, regret, remorse.  We thought we were pretty smart, powerful, superior, or successful, but the purifying fire will surprise us with the bitter truth.  In contrast, others of us who thought ourselves nothing special will be surprised in a positive way.  Thousands of deeds of kindness that we had long forgotten will have been remembered by God, and we will feel the reward of God saying, ‘Welcome into my joy!’”[8]

As wonderful as this hope is, you all know that I think how faith is lived now in this life is more important than the hope faith provides for the next life.  This fire, God’s fire of restorative judgment, can also work in our lives now.  When we open ourselves to the flames of the Spirit of holiness now, the shoddy building materials can be burnt away now.

Sometimes, I think this refining fire comes in the form of trials and difficulties.  We all experience them, and sometimes they can feel like a punishment for some wrongdoing.  But that’s not what they are.  They are consequences of the choices we and others make.  Some of these experiences, let’s be clear, can be horrendous.  When someone suffers child abuse or spousal abuse, that is the consequence of choices someone else has made.  It is certainly not a punishment from God and it is not the victim’s fault.  And I don’t know if the Holy Spirit would ever use such experiences to draw us deeper into holiness.  I suspect, more likely, that the Spirit simply wants to heal the wounds – physical, emotional, and spiritual – that abuse causes.

But other trials and difficulties – those the Spirit of Holiness will use, if we allow it, as a refining fire to burn away the dross in our lives.  “So, … delay is like a fire that burns away our impatience.  Annoyances are like flames that burn away our selfishness.  The demands of duty are like degrees of heat that burn away our laziness.  The unkind words and deeds of others are like a furnace in which our character is tempered, until we learn to bless, not curse, in response.”[9]

Here’s the thing.  “If we believe in judgment – in God’s great ‘setting things right,’ we won’t live in fear.  We’ll keep standing strong with a steadfast, immovable determination, and we’ll keep excelling in God’s good work in our world.  If we believe the universe moves toward purification, justice, and peace, we’ll keep seeking to be pure, just, and peaceable now.  If we believe God is pure light and goodness, we’ll keep moving toward the light each day in this life.”[10]

restorative justice 2You’ve probably seen the first two frames of this cartoon before.  The left frame is typically labeled “Equality”; the middle is labeled either “Equity” or “Justice.”  Take a look at this version that adds a third frame.[11]  In the left frame, it is assumed that everyone will benefit from the same supports, but, obviously, they don’t.  In the middle frame, each person is given different supports to make it possible for all of them to see the game.  In the right frame, all three can see the game, not because of supports, but because the systemic barrier that caused the inequality in the first place has been removed.  This is what restorative justice looks like.

This is what the Spirit of Holiness does in our lives – our lives as individuals and our life together as community – when its refining fires burn away the straw and the dross.  Opening ourselves to the Spirit of Holiness that sets things right again typically means opening ourselves to some painful experiences.  The restorative fires of God’s judgment can be painful.  “Like a mother in childbirth, groaning with pain and anticipation, the Spirit groans within us.  She will not rest until all is made whole, and all is made holey, and all is made well.”[12]

Now, as we move into a time of quiet, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything from the sermon or scriptures that captured your attention; or
… a time when what seemed impossible became possible and then actual for you; or
… the idea that life’s troubles are like a refining or purifying fire; or
… the image of a refiner’s fire. As you picture that image of heat and purification, ask yourself what areas of your life are being purified these days. Hold these areas up to God.

[1] “World Prison Populations,” BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/uk/06/prisons/html/nn2page1.stm (probably posted in 2011; accessed 30 July 2016).  See also http://www.idcr.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/WPPL-9-22.pdf

[2] Learn more about restorative justice at websites like http://restorativejustice.org and http://rjoyoakland.org/restorative-justice/.

[3]The Last Judgment (Michelangelo),” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Judgment_(Michelangelo) (accessed 30 July 2016).

[4] Matthew 25:31-32, 34-36, NRSV.

[5] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 49. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[6] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here?” a speech given to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in August 1967.

[7] “Theodore Parker,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodore_Parker (accessed 30 July 2016).

[8] McLaren, op. cit.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] The cartoon is taken from “Equity and Inclusion Lens Handbook,” a Resource for Community Agencies created (as best I can tell) by the City for All Women Initiative of Ottawa, Canada, 2015. It can be found at http://www.cawi-ivtf.org/sites/default/files/publications/ei_lens_community-agencies-jan-2016-en-print.pdf (accessed 30 July 2016).

[12] McLaren, op. cit.

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