The Discovery of the Power of Fire: A Sermon for Pentecost 2018

This sermon, offered by the Rev. Andy Jones at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin on May 20, 2018 is built around the readings for the Day of Pentecost in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here.

Here is a recording of the sermon:

And a transcript of the recording:

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our Redeemer.  Amen.

Please be seated.

What a powerful, and rich, and exciting day.  During the prelude you could feel the Holy Spirit brooding over the water, waiting to create all that is.  And then we process in to the glorious sound of the organ and the saxophone.  We hear the story of the Holy Spirit enlivening the bones of the people of Israel in their time of desolation; sinew upon bone, flesh upon sinew, breathing breath and life back into a people lost in exile.

We hear Jesus and his discussion with the disciples after the Last Supper preparing for his departure, talking about sending the advocate, the comforter, the Holy Spirit.  And then with a sound like the rush of a violent rainfall…  I mean wind… the Holy Spirit fills this room where we are gathered.  Flames light on top of our heads, and the church, the church is born.

We the disciples are filled with power, and grace, and the ability to proclaim the gospel in ways that will change the world.

There’s so much to talk about this morning, so much that we have already heard…  I want to focus our attention for just a minute on words that we haven’t yet heard this morning.

In a few moments we will stand and we will baptize Sean Patrick Fedler Campbell into the body of Christ, making him a full member of the church. And once we have completed that act, we will say this prayer.

In the first half of the prayer we are thanking God for something that God has already done…

Heavenly father, we thank you that by water and the holy spirit you have bestowed upon this your servant the forgiveness of sin, and have raised him to the new life of grace (BCP page 308).

We’re celebrating and thanking God for something that God has done forever, is doing in this moment, and promises to do for the rest of his life.  But then this prayer changes, and instead of thanking God for something that’s already happened, we’re asking God for something more.

Sustain him, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit.  Give him an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works”     (BCP page 308).

An inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works…

Those are powerful, powerful words.   But they’re powerful, or just as powerful, for what they don’t say as what they do say.

They don’t say “help him to memorize this list of theological assertions which bind us all together.”  They don’t say “get him to walk in lockstep with all of the rest of us so that he’ll know that we are a community bound together by the things that we proclaim and declare.”   They don’t say “help him to know all the answers so he’ll be safe and find his way every single day…”   These words actually talk about a journey, a process, discerning, inquiring, continuing to learn, to wrestle, to engage, to find a way forward.

These words also say that it won’t be easy.  It asks for the courage and will to persevere and there will be times when the lack of clear answers will be dismaying, and frustrating, and may even bring tears.  A spirit to know and to love you, to remember our goal, to remember where it is that we are going; always seeking, striving to come ever closer to the heart of God; to know that we are beloved, and to feel that love in the way changes us and changes the world around us.

And then, the gift of joy and wonder; awe reverence, surprise, delight.  The world is a fantastic and beautiful place, filled with God and God’s revelations.  And sometimes, even though they may be hidden, we will need these words and God’s help to see the good, what is light, and what is beautiful.

This is who we are as a church of people bound together by the struggle, by the journey, by the commitment to finding our way forward together as a community led by the Holy Spirit into a future that is filled with God light.

We mark this day, the day when the church finds its birth in the coming of the Holy Spirit, a day when we baptize people into this body, we mark this day with fire; red balloons to symbolize the flames of fire that lit on the heads of the disciples as they gathered in that upper room… fire…

So a little aside for a minute.  My alarm clock is set for 4:30 in the morning every Sunday.  But it’s not often that my alarm is set for 4:30 on a Saturday.  How many of your alarm clocks were set for 4:30 in the morning yesterday so that you could get up and watch Michael Curry preach at the Chapel at Windsor?  That was why we got up… right?   To hear our Presiding Bishop preach!  Yeah, Harry and Meghan were there too.  Bishop Curry did us a great favor yesterday.  Well and I guess actually it was Harry and Meghan that gave us the favor.  They were the ones that chose the reading from The Wisdom of Solomon that Bishop Curry used as his text.  Here’s that part of that reading which was read by Princess Diana’s sister The Lady Jane Fellowes:

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.

(Wisdom of Solomon 8:6,7)

In the wisdom of Solomon love is described as a flame, as fire, a fire that cannot be quenched, even by the rain that we’ve had for the last several days.  And as Bishop Curry talked about that flame he quoted Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French idealist philosopher, Jesuit Priest, who was trained as a paleontologist and a geologist; who talked about fire as the thing that changed and advanced humanity and our civilization.  It is our ability to manage, and control, and Channel fire, he said, that allows us to cook food, to preserve food, to warm cold climates.  Controlled fire moves our cars, our airplanes, our ships on the sea.  Controlled fire gives us electricity to light the room so that we can read at night, and have leisure time to read and explore, and to think.  It is fire that changed the world.

 

And Pierre de Chardin says”

“Someday after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides, and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”

Fire.  We mark this day, the birth of the church, when we the disciples are given the courage, the strength, the power, to go out into the world and to proclaim the good news God in Christ Jesus; we mark this day with the coming of the fire of love; unquenchable with flashes that flare like a mighty flame.  We mark this day when we baptize people into this body, into this fellowship, with the fire that will change the world.

The candles are lit.  The flames are dancing.  Sean Patrick, we’re about to set you on fire.  But don’t worry.  We’ll rescue your hair with the water of baptism!  As we go forth from this place singing the songs, praying the prayers, and celebrating the life to which we are called, don’t forget that we are on fire too!  We are called to carry that flame with us into all the dark places of the world, shining that light, God’s love, so that others might see the lantern that we are, placed upon a hill; that the world might be drawn to that flame; that the world might be changed once again by the discovery of the power fire.

Amen.

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The Challenge of Becoming “Woke,” Addressing Issues of Race and Racism in Madison, Wisconsin

Over the last couple of years Saint Andrew’s has put a lot of its time, attention, and energy into addressing the racial disparities here in Madison and in Dane County.   We have offered book studies.  We have offered class and conversations around whiteness and black history.  We have worked to partner with the people at St Paul’s AME church on the east side of town.   And we have had well over a dozen people attend the Justified Anger’s Black History for a New Day course at Fountain of Life Covenant Church.

I had enrolled in the class at Fountain of Life a year ago but was only able to attend the first three classes before life got too complicated and other commitments and responsibilities forced me to drop out.  I was eager to enroll this spring, and to finish the course, because between those three classes last year and the Conversations on Being White class here at St Andrew’s, I had begun to get a sense of how deeply racism is embedded in our constitution, our legal code, and our economy.  I get a lot of push back from people when I start to talk about institutional racism and I wanted a deeper history and understanding to buttress my arguments that the deck is stacked against people of color in this country.  I got that education and more…

For instance, I didn’t know that while most slaves were held in the south where cotton farmers needed a large labor force to work the fields, most of the ships that carried kidnapped peoples across the Atlantic were built, maintained, and sailed out of Rhode Island and other northern states.  I didn’t understand that the cheap cotton harvested in the south was shipped to mills in the north where huge profits on the finished goods were only possible because of the artificially low labor costs.

I didn’t know how the laws of this country were written, and then changed, over and over again, to withhold citizenship and the vote from black people.  Nor did I understand the ways that black people were, in accordance with the laws of this land, exploited after the civil war, often being forced to labor under conditions worse than they endured under slavery.

I didn’t know about the long, sordid, history of lynching as a tool of terror in this country; and was shocked by the picture postcards that were produced, sold, and sent through the mails; with crowds of smiling people standing around the bodies of black people who had dared to become successful, to raise their eyes, or to speak in their own defense, thus offending those in power.

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t learn any of this history in the many years I spent in American history classes.  And the fact that I had never learned these stories is just as upsetting as the stories themselves.

I didn’t know… but now I do.  This history, our history, helps us to hear differently the stories that are being written today, right now, here in Madison and in Dane County.  Knowing this history, when our African American brothers and sisters tell us stories about getting pulled over on a regular basis for “Driving While Black”; about being followed by store employees and security, about being stopped by the police for walking in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time of day;  about being denied equal access to housing, jobs, and positions of leadership in Madison and in Dane County, we have to see them as part of a larger picture, a system that is set up to benefit one group at the expense of another.  We can no longer dismiss these stories as anomalies, as the work of a few bad actors but must see them as the ongoing legacy of a system that is unjust, inhumane, and immoral.  A system that has benefited most of us in ways that we have never been forced to see, believe, or confront.

I didn’t know.  And perhaps we didn’t know.  But I, and hopefully we, know now.  And therein lies the challenge.  If you don’t know, you can’t be faulted for not acting.  Once you know, once you are “woke” to the reality, a failure to work for change moves from complacency to complicity.  Once you know, once you find yourself aware, once you see the truth, inaction ceases to be a moral and ethical option.  Our Baptismal vow to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human
being,” calls us to action (BCP page 305).

So what will we do?  This year the Diocese of Milwaukee will be reading Waking Up White: and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debbie Irving.  Last year the Diocesan Read was Just Mercy by Brian Stevenson and we had some great discussion and conversation around the book at our Diocesan Convention.  We will have that same opportunity to discuss Debby Irving’s book at this year’s convention.  I have five copies of Waking up White on my desk and would love to give them to people who are interested in leading a book group, either in their own home or at the church between now and our convention in October.  I’d like to see us offer several groups and then come together as a larger community to discuss what we have learned.  You will find an article elsewhere in this edition of the crossroads with a review and more information.  Please email me at rector@standrews-madison.org if you are interested.

There are lots of other options:

Sign up for Leanne Puglielli’s class “Conversations on Being White” the next time it is offered.  We will give you lots of notice that it is time to sign up.  Sign up for the “Black History for a new Day” class next spring at Fountain of Life Covenant Church.  Go to Netflix and watch 13th and learn how the Thirteenth Amendment shifted slavery from the cotton fields to the prison system.  Log into Wisconsin Public Television and watch the PBS documentary Slavery by Another Name and learn how the peonage system perpetuated slavery in this country, often under worse conditions that existed on the plantations.  Read “Just Mercy” by Brian Stevenson or “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates.  None of these are likely to be easy reads or easy movies to watch.  They will challenge us to check our assumptions, to be willing to believe some things about ourselves and our society that are uncomfortable, and to be willing to recognize the benefit we have accrued, even without knowing it, through a system that is stacked in our favor.  It will cost us something.  But the cost of complacency becomes complicity when we know that there is work to do.

Finally, keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities to get to know our friends at St Paul’s AME.  I am working with Pastor Joe to create more fellowship opportunities and to find a project that might allow us to work side by side as we get to know each other better.  You will be hearing lots more about these opportunities as the summer progresses.

Peace,

Andy+