Dancing with Fire
Pentecost, Year A
One of the benefits of being a clergy person is the expectation that you will put thought and prayer into the big questions of our faith and our church. Like…how much red is too much red on Pentecost Sunday? Obviously, it’s a day for red shoes…but what about red nail polish? But seriously…there are many questions that I mull over that are a little more serious than what to wear on Sunday. One of the things I have been pondering is hope. Is hope dangerous? Sounds odd, so let me give you an example: Let’s say you are a senior in high school and you have applied to one college that you have always dreamed of attending. However, only a small percentage of people get in. You have to wait several months until you know whether you are accepted. You could spend those months hoping and dreaming of getting in, or you could consider the statistics and worry the whole time about what happens if you don’t get in. Then, let’s say you do not get accepted. Will it be harder if you had spent those months hoping or will it be harder if you never hoped at all?
This is just one example. I am sure you can all think of some point in your life where you have dealt with something like this. I remember talking to a friend once about a hope I had. She was worried it would not work out and my hopes would be crushed. She recommended that instead I be cautiously optimistic. It seemed wise at the time, but since then I have wondered why people never encourage others to be cautiously hopeful. Perhaps because it is not really possible to be cautious when it comes to hope and faith.
Yet in today’s church, we try so very hard to master the art of cautious or defensive faith. We have enough faith to get us through, but not enough to get us hurt. That is what makes Pentecost so out there, so wildly uncomfortable for most of us. In Biblical times, there were three things that were considered to be the major source of power: Human, animal and wind. Out of all three of those, wind is probably the most uncontrollable. Luke, the author of Acts wrote, “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” That must have been a pretty intense sound…almost deafening. I imagine it sounded a bit like when a jet goes overhead…except in this story there was no accounting for the source of the sound. Then, as if that was not enough, tongues of fire appeared out of nowhere and rested on each one of the apostles. Just imagine for a moment how terrifying that would be. We have lighters and matches and all kinds of things that control fire. But at this time, fire was not really a controllable substance. It was hard to create and hard to contain. If a fire was out of control, there was no stopping it.
Luke then tells the reader that each apostle was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in different languages. While I have always wanted to speak fluently in a foreign language, I am not sure I would want for it to happen that way. It is hard to imagine that this Holy Spirit is the same spirit that Jesus gave them when he appeared to them after his resurrection. In the Gospel reading that we heard today, Jesus gave the apostles the Holy Spirit by breathing on them and saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” That sounds like a much more dignified way of receiving the Holy Spirit. That would probably go over better in most of our churches. How many of you would ask for the Holy Spirit if it meant dancing fire on your head? Most Episcopalians won’t even consider dancing in church, let alone dancing flames of fire.
Yet we have all kinds of prayers that we proclaim and we sing where we ask the Holy Spirit to descend on us. We say those prayers every Sunday. Today, at the later service, we even have extra Holy Spirit prayers because we have 2 baptisms. Imagine that if instead of asking the baptismal candidates if they would turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as their Savior, we asked them if they were ready to dance with fire. How do you think that would go over? We could not ask that of children, but I think we could with adults.
In Acts, after the fire descended and the roar of the wind died down, Peter got up to preach a sermon. In it he quoted the prophet Joel. God declared “that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams…” What a vision! When Joel said it in the Old Testament, he was talking about the end of the world. It was a bit of a doomsday vision. But Peter reframed it. It was not about the end, but a new beginning.
I love the line “and your old men shall dream dreams…” I am not sure why Joel specified dreaming for old men. Perhaps the point was that it is never too late to have dreams, have hope even when we have every reason to believe that all hope is lost. I think that kind of dreaming is needed for all of us regardless of our gender or age.
I have conducted some hope experiments over the last several years. I have had hope, just to see the hope shattered. And I have practiced cautious and skeptical optimism only to end up with the same devastating ending. The only difference was what came before the fall. In one situation I went through my days with a fire that burned strong. In another, I barricaded the fire and provided only enough fuel to keep the coals burning. While the end was the same, at least when the fire burned strong the waiting was more holy, less lonely.
Hope, even dangerous and precarious hope is always better than cautious optimism…but only when that hope is rooted in God, in the Holy Spirit. Because while it will always be a slightly dangerous hope, it will be holy and sacred. It will be a hope that is a beacon in the night…a hope that gives us the courage to dance with the fire when we would rather just dwell in the ash.
This sermon is not about the end goal. It’s about how we get there. It’s about the hopes and the dreams that inspire us toward the unexpected. I fear that organized religion does not always give us the freedom to be dreamers…to dance with the flame. In some ways, we have domesticated faith and that is why Pentecost is so important. We celebrate Pentecost not to remember the dreams of the past, but to remind us that we need to keep dreaming, keep hoping. We proclaim our baptismal covenant not to remind ourselves of what we promised or our parents promised on our behalf, but to rekindle the flame. Actually, we should do more than just rekindle it–we should let the flame go a little out of control. We wear red on Pentecost to remind us of the fire, but it’s time that we do more than just remind ourselves of fire. We have to dance with the fire, feel the heat of it and let it inspire us. So the real question for all of us is: are you ready to dance with fire?