Hearts That Burn

Good morning friends, this Sunday morning or whenever you are tuning in! My name is Cate Nelson, she/her. I lived in Cambridge and worked and worshiped at Reservoir Church for a number of years, and it is a great joy to be back with you all today. 

For those of us that haven’t met, or for folks I haven’t seen in a while, here are some things that I’m enjoying this morning…

This morning we are extending the theme of Fire one more week. Today is a coda to last week’s Easter sermon where Pastor Steve reflected on the story of Jesus’ resurrection appearance to two of his followers along the road to Emmaus. We are spending another week with this story — to expand and stretch it, before Reservoir begins its new series next week on the Wisdom Literature. 

There will be a few moments to have some reflection to check in. 

Grab a match or lighter and candle!

Let’s revisit the scripture we read together last week, as we sink deeper in it today.

This story picks up on the Sunday afternoon after Jesus’ crucifixion…

Luke 24 13:18, 25:32

13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem,

14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.

15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them,

16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.

17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad.

18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 

He goes on to tell a long story of the events leading to Jesus’ crucifixion, how brokenhearted and confused their community is… and how maybe he isn’t in the tomb any more and that angels said he is alive… 

Jesus responds:

“Oh, how foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!

26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”

27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on.

29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them.

30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.

31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, and he vanished from their sight.

32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 

Let me pray for us as we begin.

The Fellowship of the Burning Hearts

When I was 19, I was interning at a Christian ministry, and part of the internship involved a group Bible study with my fellow interns. It was a three month program, and we had regular classes where we would explore stories and themes of scripture together. In one of our first meetings, our lead teacher took stock of our group and with all this affection in his eyes and conviction in his voice, looked at us and said,

“I’m calling you the Fellowship of the Burning Hearts.” 

He was referencing this passage we just read, where these two men, reflecting on their walk with a person they realize was Jesus, say,

“Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 

I for one looooooved this name. I wasn’t a Lord of the Rings fan at that stage of my life, but there was something in this name about a merry-band-of-motley-travelers that I adored, as well as the notion we might just find our hearts burning in love for Jesus throughout our experience together. The Fellowship of the Burning Hearts. 

Let’s return to our scripture for a minute. A couple things caught my attention about the burning hearts in our reading today. First:

  • They recognize their burning hearts after the fact. It’s once they’ve recognized him, after he leaves, that they say, “were not our hearts burning within us as he unfolded to us the scriptures…” 
  • Even if they are moved by Jesus’ words, they recognize him in his actions

    : “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him…”

Word and action — their hearts know something as they listen. But they understand something when they see him, when they eat together and he breaks the break — this is Jesus, they say. And that was Jesus, as they see in retrospect that their hearts were alive in a whole new way as they listened to him unfold the story of himself.

When has your heart last been burning?

Can we remember too when our hearts burned within us?

A couple things come to mind for me: 

  • I was at a gathering a few weeks ago, where we all took turns sharing that if we only had one scripture to revisit for the rest of our lives — it would be enough. Just one passage, one chapter, a handful of verses. And as this group spent time going around the circle, reading a passage aloud and saying what it meant to them, and why those words would be enough for a lifetime — I found my heart so tender, so gently glowing with how precious these testimonies, these stories were. 
    • Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty….You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day…

    • In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.. and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overtake it.

    • You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies, You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 

    • Write the vision; make it plain on tablets. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end and does not lie.

These words filled our room, woven together with stories of mothers’ wisdom and prayers and family dinners, words that sustained people in moments of loneliness, darkness and tragedy… my heart swelled as I listened to these passages that would be enough for the group I was gathered with. For a kid who encountered a good deal of Bible-thumping along the way and sometimes has a spotty relationship with these texts, I was deeply aware that here in this room, as people were unfolding the scriptures to each other, I was in the presence of a

Word that was living and active (Hebrews 4:12).

This is Jesus. My heart burned with love for these people and love for Jesus. 

  • Leaving a boring meeting  — the warmth in my heart from connection afterwards
  • Heart burning from the things in the world we care most about — with rage, with hope

Practice: scan your last few weeks. Was there a time where your heart was burning? Maybe in a moment of connection with God? Maybe in a moment of connection with others? Maybe in awe of a sight in nature, like spring unfolding on the red buds…. Light a candle, remembering your burning heart… giving thanks for that fire within you, perhaps even recognizing Jesus’ presence was in that moment of a burning heart…

Finding our own fellowship this morning of our burning hearts…

Letting this flame burn during our service, as a mark of our fellowship together today. 

Soft Hearts, Burning Hearts

Why this focus on our burning hearts? 

Because the reality is there is so much else that presses upon our hearts…

  • 876 search results for “heart” in the Hebrew Bible and Christian Testament….

Some of these “heart” results yield words like gladness and rejoicing… and for sure, it is a wonder when we find our hearts tender, joyful, fiery. Quiet joy of contentment or delighted joy are in our own Disney song, dancing among the flowers in awe of the world with little bunnies hopping around us. Goodness knows I love when this is what my heart is like. 

The reality is, life piles up… and with that, troubles, the disillusionment. 

As it turns out, a whole lot more of the search results of these ‘heart” words are things like troubled, broken, hardened. Which really resonates. 

God is well aware of all that goes on in our hearts, how tough it can be… broken hearted, our hearts are troubled, things can be so much. Last week, Steve talked about how life feels so cataclysmic, both in the world and in our own individual lives. The breaking. The aching, the falling apart. All that is unbearable. 

I told you at the beginning of my Fellowship of the Burning Hearts — well this place where I interned has been spectacularly, painfully, catastrophically crumbling in recent months. Heart breaking abuse from a trusted and admired leader leaving people confused, angry, betrayed not to mention leaving some deeply harmed. This place where my heart once burned, now it is breaking, and has left my heart deeply troubled.

  • They stood still, looking sad. How very relatable, this may be one of my new favorite scriptures. And even more, how easy it would have been to say, we are too sad to talk to you — they are after all overcome with grief. Of all the days to have an excuse to say to a stranger, “I’m sorry, I don’t have it in me today, I’ve suffered a great personal loss…” it is this day. But they make a choice to invite him in, and they make a choice to keep walking…

How do we keep moving… to keep walking this road to Emmaus with our grief, our troubles? How do we not stay still in our own sadness, at least not for too long?

I was talking on the phone with a friend who was lovingly listening to me share my litany of heart-sorrows — the mounting pile of troubles and heartbreak. I finished my lament and she wanted to pray for me.

“I am putting my hand on my heart, imagining that Jesus is putting his hand on your heart…”

The tenderness of this brought tears to my eyes as she prayed with love for my troubled heart.

There is a famous scripture in the Hebrew Bible, God tells the Hebrew people:

Ezekiel 36:26

“A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you, and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” 

This, too, is spoken to a community – just as the burning hearts happen in the context of two followers of Jesus in grieving fellowship along the road. Our burning hearts, our fleshy hearts, are found with Jesus and in the company of others.  

“A new heart I will give you, I will take the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

The truth is, stone can’t burn… a heart of stone cannot burn. So part of the practice of being a people with burning hearts is to be a people of soft hearts… fleshy hearts. Heart of stone for heart of flesh. Can we keep bringing our troubled hearts, our broken hearts into the presence of God and the ones we trust, to say things out loud and to ask for help that our hearts might not calcify? That they may stay fleshy that they can burn with all that makes them alive?

And if our hearts are hard, if they are rocky, may they at least be charcoal, or some other combustible rock that, in due time, can crumble and and burn. And saving that, we do have a God who miraculously can take the hardest places of our hearts and give us a heart of flesh.

Practice: I want to invite you into a moment of reflection, much like my friend invited me into when she prayed for me. If you’d like, place your hand over your heart. Maybe it is a moment to be loving towards yourself. Maybe you imagine it is Jesus’ hand on your heart, close to you in all that troubles or breaks your heart. 

And with your eyes closed or softly landing, take a few breaths just like this, naming before God the things that might hurt so much — or cause you so much worry — or feel like they will never ease. Maybe it’s one thing, maybe it’s a litany of things. Allow yourself to feel Jesus’ love and nearness to the parts of your heart that are troubled, breaking, or aching. 

Can we practice keeping our heart soft and fleshy — not by ignoring the things that hurt, not by trying to solve them on our own, but giving them back to God. This may be pain that we feel in our own lives, pain we see in the world around us… can we keep our hearts fleshy by letting Jesus’ love press upon our hearts — that our hearts may not calcify. 

Maybe we have done this a million times… can we do it once again today. Because the reality is that this is a form a repentance — a form of returning to Jesus again — to say, here it is, my broken heart, my hard heart, my troubled heart… I don’t want to simply stand still and look sad, at least not for too long. I want to bring this into the light, the light of your love, the light of the fellowship of those whom I trust, if only to say, please help. 

Jesus…help.

Jesus, hold.

Jesus, heal. 

How is Your Heart?

I want to end with one final question. How is your heart? 

It’s the question we’ve been asking all morning long… 

This heart — however you name it, however it feels — can we bless it, just as it is… 

James Baldwin makes a big claim in his book, The Fire Next Time:

“If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving.” 

I want to invite us to hold these candles up together (or finger candles) — imagining our friends, our online church gathered together today… let us bless one another…  in this fellowship of beautiful, troubled, fleshy, burning hearts — that as our hearts would be larger, freer, more loving as we encounter Jesus along the way. As he presses his hand against our hearts. As his words and love cause our hearts to burn once again. May this be our blessing to one another today, as we blow out our candles, as the smoke extends the blessing of fire to one another. 

Let me pray for us. 

Jesus, our risen God who walks with us along the way, would our encounters with you leave our hearts burning — larger, freer, and more loving. 

I give thanks for this fellowship of sacred hearts here in this online church today — burning, hurting, full of the very same stuff as the galaxies. We love you Jesus and are grateful for all the ways you come close to us with your love. 

Friends, may the blessing of God, the God of our burning hearts, be with you as you go. 

The So-Easy-to-Miss Fire of Our Great Love Stories

For the last week of our Lenten season, the theme is the fire of love. 

Our first scripture comes from a bit of erotic poetry, right in the middle of the Bible. It’s from a book called Song of Solomon that tells a poetic coming of age erotic love story that at the same time the tradition has read as an allegorical celebration of divine love. 

The love and fire line is in this bit from the eighth chapter.

Song of Solomon 8:6-7 (Common English Bible)

6 Set me as a seal over your heart,

        as a seal upon your arm,

for love is as strong as death,

        passionate love unrelenting as the grave.[b]

Its darts are darts of fire—

        divine flame!

7 Rushing waters can’t quench love;

        rivers can’t wash it away.

If someone gave

        all his estate in exchange for love,

        he would be laughed to utter shame.

Weird that love, this fiery force as strong, as unrelenting as death, has this fierce erotic longing in it. A kind of impulse in us that by itself may or may not be loving.

Weird that to talk about holy love, divine love, the biggest and deepest love in the universe, the Bible has steamy romantic poetry in it. Weird that these things would be connected. 

And weird that we all know that if someone had love, and someone else that this huge wealthy estate and tried to make a deal, everyone would laugh that person off. Who’d ever trade away a great love story? 

It’s priceless, the best thing in life.

And yet we give up, or skip out on, or even throw away great love stories all the time, all the time. 

Weird but true. 

Last week I met a woman who really wanted to show me pictures of her kid. 

I’ve done this before, tell people all about one of my kids, whether they cared or not. Probably not, but sometimes parents can’t help themselves.

Well, I met this woman because I was meeting with a small delegation of people whose friends or family members have been killed or taken hostage in the Hamas attacks on Israel in October.

She said to me and my friend:

would you like me to show you videos?

And my friend said:

would you like us to see them?

And she pulled out her phone, and we watched videos of her 22-year old son hiding in a shelter, images of her son being kidnapped and taken away, and an image of him as a small child, looking back charmingly at the camera. 

She turned to us emotionally and said:

I know he’s alive. We haven’t had proof of life in a little over two months. But I know he’s alive, and I know he’s coming home. I don’t know how, I don’t know when, but I know he’s coming home. 

A little part of me wanted to go political with the ensuing conversation. Wanted to ask about her about the thousands of Palestinian mothers who mourn their dead children. To ask about the Palestinian families who have no home to return to. 

But I didn’t. One, she knew. Most of the members of this delegation were leftists in Israel, no friend to their own government and its actions in Gaza and the West Bank. They knew.

But also, that wasn’t what this conversation was about. I was being asked to bear witness to the fierce grief and the fierce love of a mother, whose 22-year old son was taken hostage. 

Fierce, holy love, that says:

I know he’s coming home. And you’re welcome to visit me then and meet him. I hope you will.

Love is like this.

Love bears all things, believes all things. Love hopes all things, endures all things.

This day in the church calendar, Palm Sunday, is a weird one.

We remember Jesus and his students walking into Jerusalem, Jesus riding a donkey, the crowds waving palms and laying them down like a green carpet of welcome to the city as they cheered:

Hosanna, here is the one who will save us!

Jesus smiled. He loved the shouts and the singing.

But some part of him must have known it was kind of a fake love story.

On the other side of town, after all, the Roman governor Pilate rode into down on a battle horse, surrounded by soldiers, to bear in his body the glory of Rome, which would fill Jerusalem with its armies on big festivals, to keep the peace, so to speak, which was code for crushing dissent.

Jesus is the one they would crush this week. They would arrest him, mock him, beat him, crucify him naked on a wooden cross, with a crown of thorns atop his bleeding head. 

This day, a week earlier, Jesus had just mourned over his beloved Jerusalem. Pausing on his walk in, he had seen the cityscape before him and broke down crying: saying

– if you only knew the way of peace. But you don’t. And so the day is coming when your enemies will surround you and besiege you, and attack and utterly crush you.

He saw this vision through tears, the angry, weary tears of grief.

And now, he performed this kind of street art mockery of a king’s entrance, riding into the city unarmed, with a scrappy band of rural followers for a royal delegation, atop an old donkey, not a battle horse, determined to bring a great love story to a city consumed with fantasies of fights they could not win. 

Jesus didn’t bring the fight they were looking for.

Actually, the whole final week of Jesus’ natural life, the week we call the passion of Christ, is a week in his life filled with threats. Threats of Rome, threats of religious establishment, threats of denial and betrayal. Threat behind threat. Trauma behind trauma. 

And over and over again, the sort of script Jesus is expected to follow is the scripts we all follow in the face of trauma, threat, or even tension.

He’s expected to fight or flee – the old fight or flight syndrome for our species, for all animals.

Or he’s expected to freeze or fawn – these additions to fight and flight our psychologists help us understand. Because sometimes in the face of threats, we don’t fight, we don’t run away, we just shut down and freeze – silence, no emotion, no action. Or we fawn – we try to people please our way past the threat.

But weirdly, Jesus again and again won’t do any of these things.

No fight, no fight, no freeze, no fawn.

Just passion.

He just keeps showing up, present with his whole body, his whole self. 

And this is a great love story that no one, well almost no one, is ready for.

I’m obsessed with this TV show that ended a couple years ago, This is Us. That’s where I’m pulling this phrase “great love story” from today. Because the show uses that same phrase for the marriage at the heart of it. Jack and Rebecca have this epic, great love story, and who doesn’t like a good love story? 

I met this extraordinary woman named Grace when I was 19-years old, and she and I who later realized we are so different, at that time bonded over the sames we share – some same likes, same values, same passions, same looking for someone to welcome us into their arms just as we are, same longing for authentic in a world of fake. 

I love all this so much in Grace still. She’s stuck with me, even when I’ve mostly been a pain in the ass, and I can’t imagine anything but showing up with my whole self and sticking with her too. Because love is like that. And this imperfect but still great love story is so good. I’m so grateful.

But in many other relationships among family and friends, I’ve sometimes struggled to find my love stories there. Plenty of relationships in my life have gotten stuck or failed.

Which takes me back to This is Us. Because over time, I realized I was drawn to this show not so much by that romance as I was by all the other great love stories in it. Stories of parents and their children, stories of sisters and brothers and strangers and friends. This is Us is really about the us-ness of all of life.

It’s not easy. Misunderstanding, rivalry, addiction, conflict, even death get in the way.

And this is why great love stories are usually a little tragic too, because they usually end, by death or by some other means. Or they never even really get going the way they should because someone or another pisses them away. 

And there’s an ache that comes with that. 

It’s an ache that God shares with us, because God who is love has a great deal of experience of people doing so many other things besides living in God’s great love story for us all. So much fighting and fleeing and freezing and fawning. So little love sometimes. 

That’s part of the tragedy of the passion week of Christ. So little room for love around Jesus. 

But that’s part of why it’s so beautiful that in the passion week, there’s this great love story tucked in there that is so sacred, Jesus says that everywhere the good news of Christ travels, this story must be told.

So before we end today, let’s tell this great love story, and see if its truth, its lessons can’t rub off on us some. It’s in three of the four gospels, here in from the gospel of Mark. 

Mark 14:3-9 (Common English Bible)

3 Jesus was at Bethany visiting the house of Simon, who had a skin disease. During dinner, a woman came in with a vase made of alabaster and containing very expensive perfume of pure nard. She broke open the vase and poured the perfume on his head.

4 Some grew angry. They said to each other, “Why waste the perfume?

5 This perfume could have been sold for almost a year’s pay] and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her.

6 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you make trouble for her? She has done a good thing for me.

7 You always have the poor with you; and whenever you want, you can do something good for them. But you won’t always have me.

8 She has done what she could. She has anointed my body ahead of time for burial.

9 I tell you the truth that, wherever in the whole world the good news is announced, what she’s done will also be told in memory of her.”

I have five things I’d love for us to notice.

One is that great love stories don’t have to be sexual or romantic. 

This story is sensual to be sure – this fancy vase and its gorgeous smelling perfume broke open over Jesus’ head. It’s sensual, and with other people at its center, it’s easy to see how it could have gone sexual. But it didn’t. 

Because the woman, whose name isn’t given here, and Jesus don’t let it. They’re not looking for that in each other, and they’re healthy enough in their bodies and their hearts and their self-control to not let a beautiful moment go sideways. 

In our guide this week, Ivy has brought in the wisdom of the poet Ada Limon, who’s got a love poem to her grandfather in there. Limon says there are too many love poems in the world for people who don’t deserve them.

“The bad partner gets a whole book, whereas the friend just gets a coffee.” 

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Limon’s dead grandfather gets this beautiful poem. Jesus gets the whole bottle of perfume. Its owner gets this story about her great love told throughout the world for all time. 

What great love stories has God given us – human, animal, or divine? The love of friends and family and pets and strangers and all of creation. We don’t get an infinite number of love stories to be part of, so they’re all sacred. Most of them aren’t romantic and sexual at all. But that doesn’t make them any less important. 

Two, great love stories usually break the rules a little

In this week’s guide, you get a story of me speeding through the middle of the night from New York to Massachusetts to get to Grace, who’d had a bad concussion, I had heard. She had gone to the hospital and apparently kept asking:  am I pregnant? When she never had been and also asking: who gave me the shrooms? When I’m pretty sure, at least according to her, that had never happened. Funny now, but it freaked me out. 

So I drove to see her at totally unsafe speeds. Speeds I will never be specific about. That I certainly won’t admit to my children. A law-breaking speed at which I would tell you all to never drive. Totally unsafe.

But love often breaks the rules a little.

Like here. Women don’t touch non-relative men like this in that culture. They don’t go into the inner circle of a rabbi with his students. And they certainly don’t pour perfume on their heads. But Jesus basically says:

this is what love looks like. 

She has done a good thing for me. 

This is what the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead had in mind about Jesus when he wrote: Love neither rules, nor is it unmoved; also it is a little oblivious as to morals. 

Not all the morals, right? Hurt someone and call it love, and you might be an abuser. Be unfaithful and call it love, and you’re a liar. 

But some of the so-called morals, some of the rules. Love is extra. You have to let it be. 

Related to this, the third thing:

Great love stories are extravagant. 

They’re impractical, wasteful, extravagant. The men here are arguing about this. They’re upset. What a waste. A year’s earnings wasted in this extravagant gesture. We could have done something more valuable. 

And Jesus is like:

you’re right, but you’re wrong. There’s time for value, there’s time for practical. There is. But not every time. 

Love isn’t practical. It may or may not be strategic. But we’ll die without it. 

I was at that event I mentioned this week, with the delegation of those whose family or friends had been killed or taken hostage, because a friend I love had invited me. This friend is a prominent Jewish leader, in their own way. And we show up with our friends. 

I don’t always agree with this friend, and certainly not with some of this friend’s allies and partners in public life. I think the militarism and aggression and the illusion that might ever makes right is always foolhardy. And so whether it be the military violence of Israel or of Hamas or most dominantly in the world, of my own country, I tend to mourn and protest and say with Jesus – as I personally discern the way of Jesus at least – this is not the way of peace.

My friend has told me before:

this is not practical when your enemies are trying to destroy you. What does love get you then?

And I don’t know. I’m not a politician a foreign policy expert or anything, but I dream of what a politics of extravagant love might look like. I wonder what national defense strategies and budgets of extravagant love might look like, because I believe the words of the scriptures that say that love can triumph over evil, and we are to overcome evil with good. 

Away from national defense and politics and all, if we want to be part of great love stories, we have to embrace extravagance. What it means to let someone give us more than we deserve or are comfortable receiving – more praise, more attention, more kindness, more help. And we have to get comfortable turning the dial way up on how to give those to others – bigger compliments, more wasteful presents, deeper encouragement. Longer, fuller, wholehearted presence. 

We can’t do that in every moment. We’re people, not God. But if we never do it, or if we rarely do it, we’ll be like that person that takes the estate, that takes money and time, and stuff instead of love. And how foolish would that be!

Fourthly, great love stories take whole-body, whole-hearted presence.

This big crowd of friends is getting ready for the Passover meal we’ll come to know as the Last Supper. And you know what happens with big dinners for friends and family, people are talking and arguing about all kinds of things. 

Where are they going to eat?

Who brought this or that dish or supply?

Old arguments show up, in this case about what’s worth spending money on. 

And one person, one person has the presence of heart to see the most important thing going on – that Jesus is about to die, and that this is a time to love him.

That’s how Jesus interprets this moment. That one person had the presence of heart and the courage of action to anoint him for burial, to prepare him for his death. 

When you know you are loved, like you really, really know it, you can do hard things. And so Jesus says that wherever his good news goes, what she has done will be told. In memory of her.

This is what love looks like. The courage to show up to people, to gatherings, to wherever we can with our hearts open, with our emotions accessible, with the courage to say and do what love looks like, best as we see it. 

There’s no rulebook for this. Not really.

Just keep wanting to learn what love looks like. Pay attention. And have the courage to go for it. 

Lastly, great love stories are windows into the truest truth of the universe, that God is love and that we are all the subjects of undying, extravagant longing and affection. 

This love is a last parable of the good news of Jesus in the gospel of Mark. 

It’s a thing that happened, and it’s also a story of what love looks like. See others with whole-hearts, and acting extravagantly for their wellness and the wellness of everyone involved too. Seeding another great love story. 

Some of us hear this talk with a sense of the relationships and the communities where we can live it. We know where our love stories lie, or at least we think we do, and I hope we are invited to the giving and receiving of love harder, deeper, fiercer. 

Some of us are lonely or heartbroken, though, and we’re maybe not even sure where our love stories can be playing out right now. 

Friends, I hope that you know that today you are one of the objects of God’s great love story, that the full attention of our Mother and Father of God is yours with delight and affection, hopeful that you can know just how valuable you are God, and hopeful that you can find your next great love stories as well. 

Great Fire of Love we call God, 

Everlastingly Broken, poured out, offering abundant love to all creation, 

Give us the tenderness, the zeal, the courage, the hope to love deep and full, and the courage to love again.

A Life Most Fully Alive

Alright, friends, this week we leave the fires of danger, hell, and judgment behind and return to another version of where we started in this season of Lent: God is like fire, and that is actually good news for our lives. 

If we think of a fiery person, we may think of an especially passionate person, or an angry or loving or fierce or intense person. But it is certainly not someone sleepwalking through life. 

Let’s wonder this week about what our version of a life most fully alive might look like. Perhaps a life aflame with passion or energized by beauty and goodness. The God who is like fire does not want to burn us up or make us smaller, harder, or more afraid. Jesus said that he came that we might have life, life abundantly. I wonder what a more abundant life looks like for us all, a life that is larger without ever taking space from someone else, a life that is freer while also focused, a life where our uniquely most loving selves shine bright like stars. 

Can you try something with me?

Think about someone you know about, or that you know personally, who seems fully alive. A life radiant with energy, beauty, goodness. 

  • Who comes to mind?
  • What are they like? 
  • If you know, how did they get there?

The people I think of are not heroes, they are not perfect, if there is such a thing. They are human, but they are perfectly wonderful humans. 

I think of a monk I know. He lives a life bound by many restrictions – vows of poverty and chastity. He is also radiantly present, kind, and insightful. He laughs and smiles and tears up easily. He listens well, tells the truth fiercely and graciously. He encourages people in ways that uplift and empower us. A focused life, a limited one, but also large, free, so good. 

I think of a public school teacher I know who, like most teachers, moves through her days filled with unpredictably chaotic and disordered people and situations and bureaucracy. But she’s also set two of my kids on fire with her work in their lives. She asks really deep questions. She pushes young intellects, keeps her hobby of drumming in a punk rock band going through busy seasons of teaching and parenting. And day after day, she offers passion and presence and grace to her community. Young people like my kids are learning justice and forgiveness, careful thinking and attention to detail, greater hope in themselves and their world through their relationships with her. It’s so beautiful. Her life is beautiful. 

I think of stories I’ve known of elders who visit with their spouses daily, even when their partners no longer remember their names. Their faithful presence, their perseverance in love keeps them and their spouse afloat in what could otherwise be a season of despair. The rest of us wonder at their grace as we learn more about what love looks like. 

Friends, what does your life look like when it’s aflame? Who are you, on fire? 

It has been said that many of us spend enough time thinking about ourselves as descendants but not enough time considering ourselves as ancestors. 

From dust we come and to dust we go. We are limited by our genetics, our circumstances, by all the places – good and bad – that we come from. And we’re limited by the brevity of our mortal lives. We are earth, not fire. And yet we may not wonder enough about the full possibilities of our lives when we are most inspired and set alight by the living, life-giving God. 

Maybe there are still stunning ancestor stories in the making within even us. 

What do our lives look like when they are aflame? Who are we, on fire?

Hear the words of the good news of Jesus. This is a weird and wonderful story, called the transfiguration, from the gospel of Luke.

Luke 9:28-36 (Common English Bible)

28 About eight days after Jesus said these things, he took Peter, John, and James, and went up on a mountain to pray.

29 As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes flashed white like lightning.

30 Two men, Moses and Elijah, were talking with him.

31 They were clothed with heavenly splendor and spoke about Jesus’ departure, which he would achieve in Jerusalem.

32 Peter and those with him were almost overcome by sleep, but they managed to stay awake and saw his glory as well as the two men with him.

33 As the two men were about to leave Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it’s good that we’re here. We should construct three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—but he didn’t know what he was saying.

34 Peter was still speaking when a cloud overshadowed them. As they entered the cloud, they were overcome with awe.

35 Then a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, my chosen one. Listen to him!”

36 Even as the voice spoke, Jesus was found alone. They were speechless and at the time told no one what they had seen.

I don’t know what your reaction is to hearing this, friends, or hearing it again. What a strange story. So weird and wonderful. No wonder they’re all speechless. What do you say?

I have no idea what happened up on that mountain. 

We know that it was like nothing the disciples had ever seen. Jesus looks like he’s spotlit from the heavens, just ablaze with light. And they see visions of two of the greatest fathers or mothers of their culture, their faith. The great prophets Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. 

It seems like this maybe happened late at night, or maybe at sunrise after they’d been hiking through the night, I don’t know. But it feels like a religious, a mystical experience, so Peter’s like:

I think we should build a shrine, right? 

But then clouds blow through, and they hear God saying, Shutup, Peter. Just kidding, doesn’t actually say that, even if God maybe thinks it for a moment. No, the voice is like:

Jesus is my kid. The one and only. Listen to him. 

Again, no wonder they are speechless. 

The tradition around this text tends to focus on all this scene is meant to tell us about Jesus – how special and wise and important Jesus is, how he too was destined to be among the great leaders of his culture and faith, how like Moses and Elijah, his legacy would not end with his life but would resound for generations, even hinting that Jesus would rise in glory after his death, as we will celebrate in two weeks on Easter Sunday.

And clearly, this mountaintop moment was a big moment, this epic day in the life of Jesus, when his followers and we by their testimony see him most aflame, most fully alive, most revealed for all he is. 

So it’s a weird and wonderful story about Jesus.

But in the Eastern tradition of the Christian faith, the Orthodox tradition, this transfiguration of Christ, isn’t just a story about Jesus, it’s a story about all of us too. 

The Orthodox church teaches that this illumination of Jesus also gives us a glimpse of the transformed state which followers of Jesus will reach in the life to come, and sometimes in part, in this life.

The word for this is theosis, which means deification, or divinization, the process by which we mortal humans become like Christ, where we too become humans who fully embody the glory of God. 

The second century bishop Irenaeus wrote,

“The glory of God is a human fully alive.”

Some people pull this quote out of context as they think about chasing the adrenaline of adventure, like a Red Bull cliff jumping contest. That’s cool, if it’s for you. The thrill of intense experiences can certainly make us feel fully alive, and maybe there’s something of the glory of God we taste in that.

Irenaeus didn’t mean less than this but he did mean more than this. He was writing about Jesus, that in the most fully alive human of Jesus we see God’s glory. But he was doing so inviting both our worship and our participation. He was inviting us to notice how large, how free, how beautiful Jesus is, because he was so fully human and so in touch with the love and purposes of God in every moment. And he was encouraging us to imagine for ourselves and our species a pattern of imitating Christ in this, in our own ways. With the help of God, and with our faith and cooperation, we too can be transfigured. We too have the possibility of being humans most fully alive, transformed from glory to glory, as it were.

This is our best chance at becoming the ancestor people tell stories about after we are gone.

It’s our way toward being the person who comes to mind when someone else is asked:

Who do you know that is most fully alive? 

Let’s think about how this happens, 

First, we’ve got to wake up. 

I think it’s interesting that the text says Peter, James, and John almost missed this moment – we never would have heard about it either – because they just about fell asleep. 

Maybe they’d been hiking all night and just needed a nap.

But maybe it’s easy to sleep our way through some of what’s most important in life. It’s easy to sleepwalk through life in a way, isn’t it?

I was hanging out with a couple of friends this week. And one of them was talking about how he kind of lost it last week after a particularly bad day. He was a little sheepish when he talked about his reaction, like why did I shut down so much? And another one of the friends was like:

hold on, think about all you’ve been through the past few years. Think about how much we’ve all been through the past few years.

And he started naming some of the things we’ve shared about in our circle the past few years – health problems, family crises, impossibly difficult issues at work. But not just our private stuff, but some of the things we’ve all been through by just being alive the past few years – pandemic, and lock down, and bearing witness to threat after threat, violence after violence. He was like:

It’s been a lot. No wonder that you’re tired. No wonder that your tank is empty sometimes. 

Some of us are tired, aren’t we?

Maybe your tank feels empty too. And so you’re just sputtering along. Or sometimes over-reactive to a new problem or a bump in the road. 

The weight of the past is heavy. As we hold our past in our bodies, and receive it again and again in our memories, it’s really easy to assume that the past is always prelude. That the future is going to play out just the same. 

Marjorie Suchocki is a theologian and philosopher I appreciate, who I got to meet online at a conference I was presenting at last month. She talks about how the weight of our past can feel so unchangeable that it becomes demonic. She doesn’t mean that in a spooky, exorcist kind of way, but in the literal sense of that word – accusing, a weight of heavy resignation and despair that there isn’t a better way ahead, that the worst ruts we’re in are just going to stay the way they are or sink deeper.

This happens to us, it happens to me – that our most pressing discouragements and intractable difficulties – personally, collectively – we just get stuck, we feel like things can not change. And we need help to imagine another possibility. 

We need the help of God and friends to interrupt this sleepwalking, stuck in a rut, despairing way of passing our lives. 

It’s a waking up to new possibilities. 

It’s a remembering of what we know from investing, that past performance doesn’t guarantee future results. The future is unwritten.

It’s a hope that what the scriptures say is true, that the steadfast love of God is new every morning. Every morning, the steadfast love of God is coming our way anew.

One great way to wake up to love and hope and possibility is through wonder and worship. Wonder and worship.

Peter, James, and John are falling asleep when they catch Jesus out of the corner of their eyes and he’s bathed in sunlight. His clothes, his face look aflame like lightning.

I don’t think they’re sleepy anymore. 

And then even when they try to analyze or control the moment – Peter is like,

hey religious moment, let’s make a shrine,

but the voice of God is like:

actually, hold on, you’re kind of right, Peter, but there’s more. There’s more. Just listen. Keep listening. Pay attention.

These same sleepy fishermen, who have themselves been battered by life, and who in the gospels say and do the stupidest things, keep walking with Jesus. They keep listening. They stick around. And in time, with the help of God and one another, it catches. Their lives are set aflame with passion and purpose. They become the dwelling places for God Peter dreamed of building that morning. They become the leaders of the first century Jesus movement, which is to become one of the largest, most influential movements in human history. 

They are some of the spiritual ancestors that get us all in this room today. 

This is why I pray when I do, in my own personal devotional life. And it’s why I come to church too, to get help waking up as I wonder and worship, knowing this is going to make my life larger, freer, and more loving.

Sometimes it’s in the music, when I’m singing with you all and it gets into my heart that the creator God of the universe calls us friends. 

Sometimes it’s in the taking of communion, when I eat and drink and I remember that God shares everything with us all – love, forgiveness, adoption, second chances, everything. Or I look around at you all beautiful people and think I really am part of this community of love and hope that we call the body of Christ. 

Sometimes in a sermon or a moment of prayer, a word will come to me, a word that feels like truth and sounds like freedom. A week and a half ago, I was sleep walking my way through a wall of stress, just gripped more each day by worry and a sense of doom over one piece of my world I really care about. 

And it came to my mind or soul or spirit – whatever you want to call that deep center of ourselves – that God knew it all, that God was intimate with my concerns and stress, and intimately held the object of my stress too. None of us are alone, none of us cut off, we are all connected to the caring compassion of an ever present Spirit we call God. 

And that broke the stress, broke it entirely. And that’s held.

Wonder and worship open us up. They open us up to the steadfast love of God, in all of today’s new forms. They help us wake up.

Now I want to acknowledge that as much as I encourage worship of the God we meet in the face of Jesus, there are ways that wonder and worship reach people who aren’t religious, or aren’t interested in the Way of Jesus.

It can be nature, art, unexpected or profound kindness, an experience of God or of love that is mediated through any form. And it can do this too. God can come to us through many means. 

There’s science to this too, this awakening that comes through wonder and worship. Sometimes it’s called the science of awe. How apprehending vastness or beauty or kindness interrupts us, wakes us up, kind of stops us in our tracks and widens our gaze, widens our hearts. 

Awe takes us outside of ourselves for a moment. It breaks our sleepy, doomsy rhythms. And then if we can really let it in – not analyze it or control it or walk away from it – but let the awe take hold, we can come back to ourselves with more calmness and compassion. This has been measured. 

Trying new things, paying mindful attention to whatever moment we are in so we notice whatever kindness or beauty might appear, even noticing and admiring the moral beauty of others. All these things bring wonder, they produce awe – and that calms us, deepens us, extends our lives – lights us up. 

So for our lives aflame, we’ve got to wake up, to wonder and worship, and lastly, to welcome. To welcome.

To welcome the life that we are in. And to welcome a larger, freer, more loving version of that same life. 

Jesus and his disciples come down from the mountaintop. They have to. They have lives to live, people to see, work to do. We all have to come down from the mountaintop, into the mundane and sometimes disappointing realities of our lives. 

But what if we can welcome our life a little more each day, not as we want it to be but just as it is? Because our transfiguration, our joining Jesus in becoming the glory of a human being most fully alive is going to happen in our lives as they are. Not in a fantasy version of our life where everything is better, but in our life as it is today. 

So we welcome the good stuff, and we welcome the mess, and we welcome things just as they are today, in the hope that this is good enough for God, good enough for us, good enough for fire. 

And then we welcome the largest, freest, most loving version of that life we can. This is language we’ve been quoting from James Baldwin in this season, that a God worth worshiping is one that will make us larger, freer, more loving versions of ourselves. 

Some of the ways of our lives don’t do that. We play by old rules in our family systems. Or we play capitalism’s rules – thinking our funds or our success define our worth. Or just working and working and working and then when we’re not working, letting big tech corporations make money off of our data and our weary attentions. Baldwin said that when we assimilate to racist, capitalist, violent, white world that is much of mainstream society, it’s being integrated into a burning house. 

There are plenty of ways of living we can welcome that won’t make us larger, freer, and more loving. 

In the way of Jesus, we’re invited back to our own lives rejecting and resisting all this. We’re invited to the purifying power of God within us and in our communities to resist or transform everything there that is small, hard, unfree, and unloving. And instead, we’re encouraged to admire what is best and most beautiful in the world, God included. For we become what we worship. And to welcome whatever vision God gives us of a larger, freer, more loving life, that we can be filled with all the fullness of God, shining with our light and the light of God, growing into the ancestors our future world depends upon.

I want to end by a bit from Ada Limon’s poem “Dead Stars” you’ll find in this week’s guide.

But mostly we’re forgetting we’re dead stars too, my mouth is full
  of dust and I wish to reclaim the rising—

to lean in the spotlight of streetlight with you, toward
  what’s larger within us, toward how we were born.

Look, we are not unspectacular things.
  We’ve come this far, survived this much. What

would happen if we decided to survive more? To love harder?

What if we stood up with our synapses and flesh and said, No.
    No, to the rising tides.

Stood for the many mute mouths of the sea, of the land?

What would happen if we used our bodies to bargain

for the safety of others, for earth,
            if we declared a clean night, if we stopped being terrified,

if we launched our demands into the sky, made ourselves so big
people could point to us with the arrows they make in their minds…

Let’s pray. 

Light of Christ, Fire of God, burn in me, shine through me. 

Light of Christ, Fire of God, burn in us, shine through us.

That we too could experience and manifest the glory of God in a life most alive. 

Five Thoughts About Hell

Hey, Friends,

Good to be with you all again. I was preaching last Sunday at Great Road Church in Acton. They’re friends of ours who are connecting with us through the post-evangelical collective. So greetings from out West! And I’m glad to be back with you all exploring our theme of God and us and our world on fire. 

I wonder if you’ve heard the story of Carlton Pearson. He died late last year. Before that, though, he was a fascinating Christian minister made famous by an equally fascinating Atheist storyteller. Twenty years ago, Carlton Pearson was the subject of a full-length podcast from Ira Glass on This American Life. It was so gripping it became a feature film called Come Sunday. 

And the story that the podcast and film tell is how this pastor of a 5,000 person Pentecostal megachurch lost it all – his colleagues, his career, the church he led, even his marriage. And it wasn’t because of an affair or embezzlement or anything else like that. For the people in Pearson’s circles, it was something worse. Based on his experiences of God, and based upon the words of the Bible, he stopped believing in hell. Was he a heretic? A visionary? Something else? 

We knew this Lent that when we talked about fire in church, and encouraged us to sit around fires and wonder about God and life, for some of us, the first and last thing that would come to mind is whatever we’ve been taught or wondered about hell fire. 

For others of us like me who weren’t raised on threats of hell, we may or may not think much about it. But still, hell is a huge part of the history and legacy of the Christian faith. It casts a big shadow over the reactions to this faith still, for believers and non-believers alike. And if you read the stories and teachings of Jesus, as we always invite you to do, you’ll see that now and then Jesus talks about something like hell. What is it? And why does Jesus talk about it? 

So today I’m going to give a sermon on hell. I checked – it’s my third sermon on hell in the past few years. I never thought I’d become a hellfire preacher, but here we are. I think the other two sermons are good, maybe more than enough, but third time’s a charm, so here we go.

I’m going to share five thoughts about hell. 

And we’ll start with one of the places where it seems like Jesus is talking about it, as he does a number of times.

Mark 9:45-48 (Common English Bible)

45 If your foot causes you to fall into sin, chop it off. It’s better for you to enter life lame than to be thrown into hell with two feet.

46, 47 If your eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out. It’s better for you to enter God’s kingdom with one eye than to be thrown into hell with two.

48 That’s a place where worms don’t die and the fire never goes out.

This whole cut off your foot, cut out your eye teaching shows up in different places in the gospels. Elsewhere, it’s applied to lust – how you look at and think about and touch people you’re sexually attracted to but aren’t in committed relationship with. And Jesus argues that learning self-control is pivotal to a good life and good relationships. Sex is good, but we’re not safe sexual creatures without self-control. 

Here in Mark, though, it’s not about sex, but about hurting kids, and Jesus is like:

get any help you need, any therapy, any limits so that this will not happen. 

Because the consequences are grave. He’s like:

enter God’s kingdom or get thrown into hell.

And just to shake the imagination a bit, Jesus is like

hell, you know, that place where the worms don’t die and the fire never goes out. That’s the kind of hell child abusers face. So don’t. 

  • What in the world is Jesus talking about? 
  • What did Pastor Carlton Pearson get in so much trouble for not talking about anymore? 
  • What and where in the world is hell?

You ready?

Alright:

Hell is a place on earth

At first, from this teaching, you wouldn’t think it was any place at all. When Jesus talks about cutting off parts of your own body, he’s clearly using metaphor. There was an early church father who literally castrated himself to comply with this teaching of Jesus about cutting off parts of yourself, and he lived to regret it. He was like: don’t do that. It’s a metaphor. I take his word for it.

So if Jesus’ advice on self-control and getting help to be safer, healthier people, then maybe his warning for the horrible things that will happen to you if you abuse kids is a metaphor too. After all, we do know that without deep healing work, the lives of both abused children and the adults who abuse them can become living hells. 

But we know that Jesus’ metaphor for the consequences of are harm-doing aren’t totally abstract, because the word he says isn’t actually “hell,” it’s the word Gehenna, which isn’t really a word at all, it’s a place. Ge-henna, or the Valley of Hinnom, in Jerusalem. 

And that gruesome image Jesus says that this is a place where the worms never die and the fire keeps burning, he didn’t make that up either. He’s quoting the last verse of the prophet Isaiah from the Hebrew scriptures, where people who persist in organizing their lives against the justice and peace of God will end up mass graves in this valley, victims of their own wars and moral chaos. 

Friends, I’ve been to Gehenna. It is and always has been an awful place. 

So still now, if you can get to Jerusalem, you can go to hell. You find the top of this narrow but lush green valley of olive trees. At the top of it, there’s this space for seasonal outdoor music festivals for middle class and wealthy Jewish youth. It’s like the Israeli version of a hip hangout spot in Somerville. 

But then you descend down a steep, poorly paved road, as I did on foot when I was in Jerusalem. And conditions deteriorate. You pass an old graveyard, you pass a little monastery that marks the cite where the disciple Judas killed himself in despair after betraying Jesus. You pass the spots of ancient mass graves and spots of child sacrifice, and old dumping grounds for burning trash and corpses. Toward the bottom of the valley, you still see more trash than people. When I was there, I peeked behind a crumbling brick wall and saw a fly-covered, gutted corpse of a sheep lying on the ground. 

And then at the very bottom of the valley is a working class Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem, across a no-man’s land barrier where I was rebuked for running to, where it’s apparently not safe for Jews or Muslims or outsiders like myself to go. 

Gehenna then and now is a spot of enmity, death, fear, and decay. It’s where trash and corpses and the best human dreams of progress and peace go to die. 

And Jesus, wise and teacher and healer that he was, tells the truth about it to his contemporaries in ancient Israel and Palestine. He says:

don’t get healthy, live the life of a fool, and this is where you’ll end up. But you don’t have to. Don’t let this happen.

Hell is a place on earth. Don’t go there. 

Now by the time of Jesus, after centuries of relative disinterest in the afterlife in ancient Judaism, more and more people were wondering how the mercy and justice and faithfulness of God would play out beyond the grave for us all. So sometimes in the times Jesus lived and taught, people would use Gehenna as a metaphor for consequences and suffering we might face beyond this life. And we’ll get back to that in a few minutes.

But first, most primarily, hell is a place on earth. 

But it’s not just one place. It stands for many places. Second point: 

Hell is many places on earth

Jesus warns us about the consequences of hurting kids. I’m going to keep this general, but I knew a child abuser when I was a kid. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back he was coming into adulthood as a lonely, miserable, broken young man. It took a while before it all caught up with him. He did a world of hurt in kids’ lives before he was caught, but for the past 30-35 years, he’s been in and out of prison, living a pathetic, miserable, small life. It’s tragic.

Now, when I was in hell a couple years ago, running through Gehenna on foot, I didn’t see him there. Because he was in a state prison in Massachusetts. He wasn’t magically transported to a mass grave in Gehenna, because his living hell is a state prison here, where he is confined because he’s been unable to get well. 

Hell is many places on earth. 

It’s prison. 

It’s neighborhoods in our cities and countrysides, where generations of poverty and racial oppression, and class segregation, and bad education and bad environmental stewardship have created whole ecosystems of isolation and despair and no opportunity.

Hell right now is Gaza in Palestine, which for years has been a kind of large open prison, where millions of people are penned in in isolation and poverty not for any crimes of their own, but because of generations of displacement and dispute and repeated vicious cycles of violence that in the past five months, have been playing out more brutally and with more death and suffering than we have seen in generations if ever. 

And now to live in Gaza is to live in hell, where people are sick and hungry and terrified. It’s a picture of the anti-vision of the commonwealth or beloved community of God, where plowshares are turned into swords, and where children suffer from and study and make war. 

I even write in our guide this week about unhappy households and unhappy families as their own kind of living hell. When in our supposedly safest, most intimate communities, we can not really see and hear one another, where we can’t face the truths of our own life and of one another with love and compassion, the isolation and heartache and resentment that grows there is its own kind of living hell too.

I actually agree with Carlton Pearson that there isn’t some place where God tortures people for all eternity with worms and fire. If that’s what we mean by hell, it’s not an idea worthy of God or of us, but I think Pearson and others make a mistake when they say that means there’s no such thing as hell. There is. Jesus warned us about it and wants to help rescue us from it. 

But tragically, there are many hells on earth, at least in this life, maybe in the life to come. On that note, two points about hell in the afterlife.

Hell as eternal punishment for the wicked is fear-mongering spiritual violence and abuse

Friends, I’ve been gentler about my perspective on this in the past, but more and more, I feel like some things have to be said strong and plain.

The Christian doctrine of hell as a place where God tortures God’s enemies for eternity is maybe the most harmful, dangerous, damaging doctrine in the history of the church. 

Early in the 14th century, an Italian writer published the epic poem Divine Comedy, and the first part stuck in our imaginations. Set during the season of Lent, a man who has lost his way in mid-life is guided through nine layers of hell beneath the surface of the earth. There, unrepentant sinners suffer eternally and without hope. Heretics lie in burning coffins. Murderers perpetually drown in rivers of boiling blood. This brutalish, frightening tour through the underworld is meant to shake the conscience and protect the believer from going astray. 

Dante may have had some of his geology right. The earth does get hotter as you go deeper, thousands of degrees hot at the center! But his theology missed the mark badly. By placing fear rather than love at the center of Christian religion, Dante and his many imitators have shaped God in the image of the most controlling and violent tyrants. And they have incentivized anxious, obedient compliance in the church while weaponizing judgment against Muslims, Jews, indigenous people, and all manner of people the church has labeled dangerous or deviant. 

This imaginative vision of an angry God with a violent, fiery hell seems to burn brightest in the imaginations of believers who are afraid and go to war.

Here’s a quote from friend of Reservoir Brian McLaren on this: 

“Fear is one of the earliest childhood associations with fire. We all remember warnings from parents and adults to keep away from the fire. Fire is dangerous and will burn you; play with fire and you will get burned. The church has often used this fear of fire to very destructive effect. This was done in two ways. Firstly, so-called heretics and witches were burned to death at the stake. Secondly, the church colonized the minds of its subjects with fearful visions and threats of hell and purgatory.” (Should I Stay Christian, p. 108)

And here’s one from the late pastor Carlton Pearson:

“I do believe in hell as a state of being or consciousness, and I believe that people can dwell in hell and that many do, right now, today, on this earth before rather than after death. I will argue … that hell is the most erroneous, outdated, misunderstood, and misguided dogma in all of Christianity, and the one that must be discarded if this spiritual tradition is to survive as anything more than a contemptible curiosity…. Hell was never God’s intention. It is man’s invention.”

This kind of hell is used to control and hurt people. Jesus says that it is the enemies of God who come to steal, kill, and destroy. Jesus comes that we may have abundant life. This vision of hell has got to go.

But is there any kind of hell in the afterlife? 

Well, we don’t know. We actually don’t know much about the afterlife, do we, since none of us has been there. But I can say this: 

If there is a hell in the afterlife, we can hope there are ways out.

If there is any hell in the afterlife, we can hope there are ways out.

Before Dante’s Inferno, if people believed in a place of fiery punishment in the afterlife, they likely got the idea from the final book in the Bible, Revelation.

Revelation is a weirdly told story of the great evil of human empires and great, faithful love of God. 

On the evil of human empires, you get lots of fire image, lots of stuff like this, from the 9th chapter:

Revelation 9:16-18 (Common English Bible)

16 The number of cavalry troops was two hundred million. I heard their number.

17 And this is the way I saw the horses and their riders in the vision: they had breastplates that were fiery red, dark blue, and yellow as sulfur. The horses’ heads were like lions’ heads, and out of their mouths came fire, smoke, and sulfur.

18 By these three plagues a third of humankind was killed: by the fire, smoke, and sulfur coming out of their mouths.

This is one of Revelation’s pictures of evil unleashing hell. God sees it, God doesn’t stop it, either because there’s some greater timing we don’t understand or because God can’t. 

But if we’ve paid any attention to this history or the current news about the war and violence and suffering that large nations unleash, we know what this looks like. John the revelator is telling the truth about the horrible evil powerful nations unleash beneath their propaganda of peace and prosperity. 

But Revelation’s vision is also anchored in the hope that a beautiful and wise Jesus, once slain on a Roman cross, still lives as the resurrected Lamb of God and Prince of Peace.

And in Revelation, there’s a hope that there is a place where all the bad things go, so they will haunt and plague us no more. Near the end of the book, in Chapter 20, this is visualized as a giant pit of fire. 

Now it does say that people who aren’t in God’s book of life go there, and that’s a hard, complex line to wrestle with. But we should read that in light of what comes before and after. Because mostly, people aren’t going there at all.

What goes into the pit are big realities and systems of evil that live beyond any one particular person. Accusation goes into the pit of fire. Lies go there. Violence goes there. Death and the grave themselves are swallowed up in a fiery defeat. It’s not a place to punish people, it’s a place to vanquish evil, it’s a place where all the bad things go. 

This is an image of the judgment of God. Some of the ancient texts make that sound like punishment of particular people, but we can be convinced that because God is love, all of God’s judgment is ultimately restorative, not punitive. The judgment of God exposes and heals. God’s judgment is truth telling about lies and harm and evil, so that all that stuff can get burned out of our human story and we can be transformed. Out of love for the harmed and the harm doer, out of love for the victim and the victimizer.

So when horrible violence or disasters happen on earth, I never speculate whether or not they are God’s judgment, and I’d ask you not to as well. But when the truth about bad things gets told, when exposure of evil and harm occurs, I do think this is in part the judgment of the living God, that healing could come.

And if that kind of judgment extends beyond this life in some way that we can not predict and understand, we can hope that it is not the end of the story. After all, in the next and final chapters of Revelation, as a new Jerusalem is described, as a symbol for a renewed heaven and earth, there are trees whose leaves are good for the healing of the nations, and there are gates which shall never be shut. 

We don’t always see it in this life, but the faith of Jesus dares us to hope that God’s mercy is wider than God’s judgment, that God’s healing is deeper than our evil, and that love is stronger than hate, that love is even stronger than death. 

This takes us right to the final point, friends, that:

God is better worshiped as a firefighter, not a fire starter.

When we think about hell, or when we think as Ivy had us do last week about all the suffering and hardship we face in this life, it doesn’t do any good to imagine that God is somehow starting all those fires. That thought’s mostly not worthy of a loving God.

Instead, friends, we can put our hope in God whose arm is strong to save, in God who isn’t the great fire-starter, but the great firefighter. 

We’ll have an opportunity to hold in worship in just a moment any ways we see or face fires of suffering in this life. We hold those to God in hope for God’s help, for God’s strength and perseverance for all facing the fire, and for God’s help in putting out those fires.

And I encourage us to wonder together, throughout this week using our Lenten guide, and now together as well:

I wonder what you see in our land that is against the loving, renewing, restorative, and just purposes of Jesus for Beloved Community? How do we spiritually and otherwise resist whatever sin and death harms us all? 

I wonder what dangers you feel you are prone to? What does resisting that look like for us? .

I wonder what dangers our cultures and countries are prone to? What does interrupting all that look like for us? 

This week: Each morning or evening, light a candle. If you’re lucky enough to have a fireplace or a firepit, you could even safely light a fire. By yourself, or with a friend or your family, take a few moments to watch the flame. Imagine the flame as representing whatever in you or around you is suffering or causing ripples of harm. 

WONDER

What will put out the fire? What is your part? What help do you need? 

The Fires That Shape Us

I’ve seen a house burn from top to bottom once in my life — thankfully only once.
Ten years ago in Maine, this time of year — I watched it burn from the 2nd floor of the house my Dad grew up in.  That 2nd floor was the perfect vantage point to watch birds float to the small roof below, and identify unannounced visitors  pulling in the driveway  coming to say their “last good-byes” to my Dad.   It also gave a nice view of that house directly across the road that sat at the top of a short but steep hill. .  . one that always was of interest in the winter as the owners gave test to their plowing and de-icing prowess – often skidding their vehicles to a merciful stop just before they joined the main road at the bottom.

Firefighters say that it only takes 30 seconds from the start of a fire for it to rage out of control. And only two minutes for it to overtake a structure. I think I had learned this fact in 3rd grade when Smokey The Bear visited our classroom. It scared me enough that I convinced my parents to put a metal escape chain ladder out my bedroom window for fire safety — which I happily used for many things unrelated to fires.

But on that unusually warm February night 10 years ago I bore witness – firsthand – to the uncontrolled power and speed of fire. The impact of the terror of fire – the screams and the cries …the damage, the destruction and the danger of fire.  

It is true that fire is scary as hell.

In one minute life holds shape – heartbeats, and flannels, and chimneys, and snow shovels, and dogs barking —  and in the next minute it is smoke and ash.

Today we’ll spend some time pressing into this theme of Fire as Danger – it is our 3rd week of Lent and we will wonder together:

  • 1) why has the church used the imagery and metaphor of fire to put terror into the hearts of so many who are eager to experience the love of God? 
  • 2) What do we do when we are burned? When those around us are in fires?
  • 3) And what potential does fire have to shape us?

We’ll look at the historic story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who were thrown into a dangerous, fiery furnace and consider its contemporary messages for us today.

Before I pray for us, I would be remiss to not flag how intense this imagery of fire is… how it moves from the metaphorical realm to our lived reality in many ways. This week US Airman Aaron Bushnell died in the fires of self-immolation protesting the genocide of the Palestinian people. It is intense, hard, and it is real. As we move along in today’s service please take the space and care you need for yourself and the Spirit of God to be with you – with as much freedom as you need.

Let me pray for us:

My God(!) there is a lot to fear these days…so much is burning.  There is a lot to rage against and a lot to fight. And so today we ask for your warm presence as we gather together. Help us to remember that you call us by name – that we are precious in your eyes, that you honor us – that you love us unconditionally. 

And remind us that through every age of struggle, every era of hope, you are with us. And in the labors of liberation, could you sustain us with joy and courage? 

We praise you God, because your presence is a force OF, and FOR life. Your love is like oxygen to our spirits – that fans the flames of all good things.

In community, we pray – – AMEN

It isn’t that surprising to imagine why churches would gravitate to the imagery of fire — I mean it is almost a flawless means by which to control. Fire’s destructive power is an effective symbol for fearsome threats of eternal suffering and torment for particular targets of divine or human judgment.  *next week – fires of judgment.

Fire of course, leaves the symbolic realm and is a real experience of pain and suffering. We know – the minimal centimeters between the pleasure of warming your hands by a fire and the jolting pain of having them singed by fire – we know that a drop of boiling water, or a brush of skin against a hot pan — leaves its mark in blisters and searing pain for days. John O’ Donohue says

“a burn is unlike any other pain – it cuts to the soul.” 

Therefore — threatening people with a future that is an eternal burning was the ultimate threat that could be issued against them. And for followers of Jesus who had witnessed  heretics and witches and any other person deemed “deviant” burned at the stake –  this wasn’t a far off threat – it was convincing. 

FEAR – it’s how the church colonized the minds of its people with a blazing image of a controlling, angry, punishing God.  A conditional God – a conditional faith.  And even without an identifiable flame as a warning all the time,  or words like “damnation” or “eternal suffering” always spoken from leaders… the smoke of this fear is what has been absorbed into our churches, our nation, our society — and for many of us, our bodies. 

But… if we can roll back and look at scripture we can see that fire isn’t usually a weapon in God’s hands — it is violence from which God longs to rescue us. 

Isaiah 43:1-5 (Common English Bible)

1 Don’t fear, for I have redeemed you;

    I have called you by name; you are mine.

2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;

    when through the rivers, they won’t sweep over you.

When you walk through the fire, you won’t be scorched

    and flame won’t burn you.

3 I am the Lord your God,

    the holy one of Israel, your savior.

I have given Egypt as your ransom,

    Cush and Seba in  your place.

4 Because you are precious in my eyes,

    you are honored, and I love you.

    I give people in your place,

        and nations in exchange for your life.

5 Don’t fear,

    I am with you.

From the east I’ll bring your children;

    from the west I’ll gather you.

***
You will not drown. You will not be scorched. You will not be burned. I will be with you. 

These are the promises that Isaiah pens to those in exile who are under the empire of Babylon. A people who had journeyed and suffered, who had been enslaved — then free, and now in exile.  A letter to say “there is hope”, God has not forgotten you. 

Remember your ancestors who kept their eyes on God. God who came in the column of fire that lit the path in their nighttime travels … remember your God as fire & light. 

Remember fire that lit your ancestors’ way through the wilderness – that glowed as manna fell and warmed as the desert night temperatures cooled .. remember your God as fire & warmth & protection.

Remember that in the flame of fire — God spoke to Moses. The one who would lead your ancestors out of slavery.

God a column of fire. . . present, comforting, a spark of hope.

It’s a bold letter of promise. A promise on God’s behalf for rescue. To return home from exile. A promise that God is an unconditional God. An everlasting, proactive, persistent loving kindness – kind of God… toward all of God’s creation.

These were the promises I too believed. God will save. God will deliver those God loves from suffering. God will protect. These too were the promises my Dad believed.

They were the ones that stirred in our spirit as we watched the house burn across the street – as my brothers ran to help, as we called the volunteer fire department…

We clung to those promises because we too were watching as our father’s body was ravaged by a rare cancer that spread like wildfire through his body and engulfed his life in the blistering speed of four weeks time  – before the age of 60.

It’s why my four siblings and I were all in Maine, on that 2nd floor. It’s why we could watch visitors pull into the driveway. 

This house burning across the street at the same time – felt emblematic of our reality.

And we leaned on our faith — on these promises. We prayed the gut-wrenching prayers…

“God rescue.  God of miracles – rescue, please.”

At the heart of the promise in these Isaiah verses is the rescue from floodwaters and fire.  

But it is not literally true for everyone.  It wasn’t true in our case with our Dad.  There were Jews who died in the fires of Babylon used in their siege of Jerusalem.  I know many of you have experienced and witnessed fires – suffering, pain, oppression – that does burn, does scorch, does hurt. 

Here’s the thing when it appears that God doesn’t rescue or save… a conditional faith – with foundations of fear – develop/construct new promises that in suffering sound like,

“God has his ways that are bigger than ours,”

or

“everything happens for a reason.”

I heard those words over and over throughout the wake of my Dad’s death. And as so many of you might know — that is an additional fire to endure. Like a 3rd degree burn… I mean when you need a hand – or an emergency ladder, or a lifeboat or a lamp (as Rumi says), the worst thing you can be handed is a “reason.” That is not rescue. That is not the loving care of God.

It is a burn that asphyxiates and poisons again and again. It’s not the blatant “fire and damnation pounding from a pulpit” – but it is the same smoke.

Smokey the Bear says when you are in the presence of fire you should “Stop, drop, & roll.”  Functionally, it is a life-saving technique to cease any movement that will fuel the flames — and LIMIT the harm of fire by depriving it of oxygen. 

I knew if there existed one lick of this flame – of a conditional God – even way back in the corner of my subconscious – it would show itself, it would still be live.  And I knew I had to be fully rescued from this – needed to extinguish it.  I knew that it would be critical in stoking my own fire within for the good of this world, for the work of justice, and for the godly work of liberation. 

I want to invite you to consider the story we’ll read together of Shadrach, Meshach, and  Abednego. Perhaps a familiar story – it’s one that I remember from early in my childhood. One that was relayed to me as an example of the unwavering faith we were meant to have, the miracles that would unfold as a result, and a God who would cheer us on in such tests of life and faith. 

I invite you to consider – as we read this historic one- your own story.  The fires you’ve endured…the ones that you’ve been burned by — have been rescued from? How you have perceived God in those times.. And now?

Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego and Daniel were taken captive during the period known as the Babylonian exile when the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar – described by some as a narcissistic maniac –  besieged Jerusalem. These men had impressed Nebuchadnezzar and so had been promoted to administrative positions despite remaining faithful to their Jewish beliefs.  Except the conditions ramped up to show allegiance to Nebuchadnezzar – and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow down in worship of a nine-story tall golden statue that Nebuchadnezzar had ordered built, and the king became enraged.

And here we pick up the story: 

Daniel 3:13-18 and 24-25 (Common English Bible)

13 In a violent rage Nebuchadnezzar ordered them to bring Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They were brought before the king.

14 Nebuchadnezzar said to them: “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego: Is it true that you don’t serve my gods or worship the gold statue I’ve set up?

5 If you are now ready to do so, bow down and worship the gold statue I’ve made when you hear the sound of horn, pipe, zither, lyre, harp, flute, and every kind of instrument. But if you won’t worship it, you will be thrown straight into the furnace of flaming fire. Then what god will rescue you from my power?”

16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered King Nebuchadnezzar: “We don’t need to answer your question.

17 If our God—the one we serve—is able to rescue us from the furnace of flaming fire and from your power, Your Majesty, then let him rescue us.

18 But if he doesn’t,….. know this for certain, Your Majesty: we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you’ve set up.”

Nebuchadnezzar has them bound up – and throws them in the furnace… and then we read this:

24 Then King Nebuchadnezzar jumped up in shock and said to his associates, “Didn’t we throw three men, bound, into the fire?”

They answered the king, “Certainly, Your Majesty.”

25 He replied, “Look! I see four men, unbound, walking around inside the fire, and they aren’t hurt! And the fourth one looks like one of the gods.”

The book of Daniel, set during the Babylonian exile, has something to say about history. It explores the vulnerability of people living under oppression. These three men — who were stripped of their Hebrew names — given these Babylonian names of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego  have something to say about the

“choices faced by those who must either support a repressive regime or face certain death. And just how quickly the dangerous fires of empire overtake… Nebuchadnezzar wanted them to bow—forget their heritage, forget their legacy, forget their journey, forget their God, forget their rights, and bow down.”

(Rev. Barber sojo.net) Forget who they are — and that starts with de-naming them.

The name Nebuchadnezzar literally means “one who will do anything to protect his power.” That’s why Nebuchadnezzar built his towers. He built his tower more than nine stories tall – he put his name on his tower and everything he built, and then he put gold on his tower, and he promised that he, and only he, could make Babylon great again, as Reverend William Barber points out. (sojo.net)

He wanted control. He wanted power. He wanted worship. He wanted to be God.

But Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to fan this fire – they would not give oxygen to the flames of the religion of the king, the religion of greed, of fear,  the religion of racism, the religion of hate.

Under oppression, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego knew who they were. And they knew who God was. A God that was inside the trouble with them – in the fire. God who they declared,

“even if God doesn’t rescue us — still we will not bow”

an unconditional God.

And as they come out of the fire – the attendants to the King saw that the fire had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair of their heads singed; their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them.

And Nebuchadnezzar

“Praises their God! And these three men say, “they trusted in this GOD and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God.” (v.28)

This is  a “strong, miraculous, unwavering faith” story — AND it is a story that extinguishes the voice of the oppressor, and it is a story that shows that

“in the midst of the burning – the oppressed can again and again try to liberate (unbind) themselves to show something more deep, more honest, and more powerful than the blazing!” (Dante Stewart)

And it is a story that gives shape to an image of God as a larger, freer, and more loving God than even surfaced the imagination of Nebuchadnezzar.

And it is our story.

A story that suggests the fires of this life can shape and transform us.

Friend to Reservoir, Rabbi Spitzer — who’s book, “God is Here”, we used to form a series last year — offers an image of the Divine that I found helpful in this conversation and one that I want to share with you as we close. Because ANGER is a big part of what we feel when we scan the landscape of our lives. When we think about the people we’ve lost – when we see the fires of injustice, and oppression that are not extinguished, and the actual wildfires (Texas), and the endless, unanswered calls for ‘ceasefire’ — we are angry and sad and angry again. 

Throughout the Hebrew Bible – God’s anger does blaze as fire. Fire is unleashed at times – consuming complainers and rebels alike (188) – particularly when they refuse to accept the challenge of creating a new kind of society with God.

God as a “consuming fire” is also called “El qanna” (Kah-nah) – often translated as a jealous God. But also understood as a “heated divine emotion.”  Some scholars suggest it is an essential attribute of God. . .but more like the intense heat, fire, and lava that flows from volcanoes.

One scholar Nissim Amzallag suggests that while “jealousy” is a sufficient description in the human realm – it is not complete in the Divine realm.  When referring to God he says, it is more like the process of “Furnace remelting.”  An ancient process where a corroded copper object is completely melted down in a furnace and the molten metal is then shaped/reshaped into something new. 

In the ancient world it was not uncommon for divine beings to be associated with this concept – with the intense, transformative power of flame and heat.

Amzallag says

“this attribute of God was not viewed by Israelites simply as the destructive expression of anger by God. Precisely as in furnace remelting, it was conceived as a wonder– leading to a complete rejuvenation of creation” (189).

Completely reshaping of one thing into another. 

In prophetic texts, God’s anger and the divine qanna (kah-nah) are connected both to the condemnation of oppressors and to a vision of transformation.

Collective anger at injustice, like the flames that erupt when God is angry – CAN ROAR – and seem out of control. Yet out of those flames can also come disruptive and necessary transformation. Anger is the work of love that protests an unloving world.  And often the catalyst in the fire that opens up a new way through… a type of rescue that wasn’t given shape before. 

Smokey the Bear (this is the last time I’m going to mention him – I promise!), also says that when a fire is raging another action you can take is to shut the doors  – to limit the spread of damage. To protect & safeguard that which is susceptible to fire.  And yet – preferred above stop drop & roll and shutting doors is to just extinguish the fire as quickly as possible – to not wait to see what happens, or think it will probably amount to nothing.

Now some of us aren’t always able to do this — but some of us have the energy, the capacity, the position, the privilege, the power – to do just that. 

I took this role to be a pastor, a couple years after my Dad died – by which I took on a personal oath to “do no harm.” To spread no versions of God that demand unquestioning obedience, performance, exclusion of other people, political alignment, or conformity of belief. To never promote falsely constructed “reasons” for atrocities in the name of God — but to open up more ways that we can authentically find God in our lives with one another –  in the fire, in the doubt, grief, in the ashes, and in the rubble. Life is precarious and often beyond our control, and this is part of what it means to know God too. 

It wasn’t the “reason” that explains why my Dad died of cancer – but it did give new shape to my way forward… to see with clarity that to be a follower of Jesus — is to vow to shut the doors on any of the acrid smoke that tries to actually make Jesus unfindable.

Perhaps we do have an opportunity to hear a divine message coming directly out of our terror, our pain, if we are able to withstand it. And in moments when we can’t.. perhaps we need to hear again and again the promises from our ancestors that God will … as the verses in Isaiah say: 

Bring us through the waters and through the rivers and through the fires… 

And that in the midst of our times that suggest our world is indeed on fire – we might be able to hear these lines not just as poetic ways of describing tough times. But to remember that these words ring true of the most significant moments of liberation in Hebrew history. That with full context we could read those lines this way:

“When you pass through the waters like you did through the Red Sea out of Egypt . . and through the dry bed of the River Jordan into the promised land… when you walk through the fire like brothers Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego…”

It might help us remember this faith and these miracles are ours too. These these three boys who endured unspeakable horrors. Who underwent two fires: a physical burning in a furnace, and a prolonged burning, set ablaze by empire. And remember that they didn’t simply make it through the fires, somehow just embracing the violence of the empire politely and passively — 

the miracle was their audacity. The miracle was their courage to stare down terror. The miracle was found IN the fire –  where there WAS A GOD who says,

“the violent flames of EMPIRE will not and do not have the last say.”

Black preacher and author Dante Stewart says,

“empires may be able to enslave our people, plunder our resources; they may try to destroy both our bodies and our future. But in the midst of the burning, we somehow try to liberate ourselves, again and again —  [‘remelting’]– giving shape to the audacious belief that one’s body, one’s story, one’s future does not end in this moment

a promise of God… to ring in our ears today, as truth – and as a call to action.

Rabbi Spitzer says we don’t know if there will be a period ahead in our nation where a true “remelting” is occurring . One where the structures and the ideologies of racism will be melted down so that something new and better can emerge.  Embrace Boston released a Harm Report this week — connecting the past to the present – the history of fiery harms to their contemporary impact of Black Boston….action in this direction.

We don’t know if it will be a period — where we’ll care for and investigate our actions and their impacts on our environment and climate …

We don’t know if it will be a period where we’ll regard our nation as part of a global community. . .

But we can do our parts to shut doors, limit harm, extinguish dangerous fires — and keep holding on to a faith that promises to transform us if we can hang in – to bring power out of pain, mercy out of meanness, love out of hate, joy out of sorrow, good out of evil, hope out of despair, and life out of the fire.

May God protect you, keep you warm, comfort you, and guide you in the days ahead.

In the name of the fire, the flame, and the light – Amen.

Sources:

Amzallag, Nissim.“Furnace re-melting as the expression of YHWH’s holiness: Evidence from the meaning of qanna (קנא) in divine context.” 

Stewart, Dante. “Shouting in the Fire: An American Epistle.”

Casey Overton. Enfleshed.org

Reverend William Barber. Sojo.net “We Will Not Bow Down”

Refiner’s Fire

https://genius.com/Gloria-gaynor-talkin-bout-jesus-lyrics

So I went out to the movie theater a couple weeks ago to see the Gloria Gaynor documentary. If you don’t know that name, you know her voice:

I will survive, I will survive!

Yeah, that anthem of resilience, empowerment, that’s Gloria Gaynor in peak form. 

Gloria Gaynor, though, also has one of the most interesting life arcs you can imagine. She was a global disco star through her 30’s into her 40’s. But by the time she hit her 60’s, she was in constant, horrible back pain. And she was full of regrets and pretty much broke. But at 65 years old, her life took a turn.

She started living the anthem of her song for the first time.

See, as a teenager, Gaynor had wanted to go to college and become a teacher, but she didn’t think her family could afford it and no one told her otherwise. But at 66 years old, she went to college.

In her mid 60’s, she also got a new manager and decided to pursue her lifelong dream of recording a gospel album. It took a long time for anyone to be willing to invest in someone they saw as an over the hill disco queen. But at 75 years old, her gospel album Testimony was released. And she won a Grammy for it, at 75.

She’s got a documentary out now, and it ends telling us she’s working on another album that will be released around her 80th birthday.

Wow. You don’t hear about enough turnaround stories that start in people’s 60’s, do you? Wow.

What happened? 

Well, at least two things. 

One is that Gloria Gaynor had a come to Jesus moment in her 40’s, a few years after her most famous song came out. She was partying one night, about to do a whole bunch of coke, when she felt like someone was grabbing her by the shirt and saying,

“No more.”

No more. Somehow she knew this to be the voice of God, calling out to her. And she came back to her childhood faith. 

Now it took a long time, but years later, her faith gave her the fire she needed to finally divorce her toxic husband.

Now I know this is a weird story for a pastor to tell. Since God is love and love is faithful, and all divorces are a tragedy. I’m not here to stump for God doing a revival in your life so you can get divorced. Not in general. But sometimes divorce is the only way out of a marriage that’s already become so tragic that there is no return. And this was the case for Gloria Gaynor with her ongoingly controlling, abusive husband. He had been taking, taking, and taking for years, and just running her into the ground. 

And there were things in Gloria Gaynor that predisposed her to accept this way of things. She says she had a deep fear of abandonment, ever since she was young. She had been abused as well and had come to assume and expect really ill treatment of her, especially by men. 

But there was something about her faith in a God that made her and loved her that slowly burned this away, until Gloria Gaynor realized that if God loved her this much, maybe she could too. 

She says of her divorce:

I never stopped loving him. But I began to love me. 

Hallelujah. Love found a way.

Gaynor sings about this in her gospel album.

She says:

Let in a little light

And it’ll help you see

Surely the truth

Gonna set you free

Or the chorus of another song, where she sings:

I’m talking about love. I’m talking about freedom. 

Talking about the one you can depend on when you need him. 

Hallelujah. I love that Gloria Gaynor found her way into singing like this in her 60’s and 70’s, when the fiery love of God had burned away her hurt and worthlessness and fear enough to finally get free. 

Because this, friends, is how the fire of God cleanses and refines – reducing us to love, purifying us so we can get larger, and freer, and more loving. 

We find this in the scriptures.

Let’s go to the final prophet in the Hebrew Scriptures, the very end of what Christians call the Old Testament. 

In the third chapter of Malachi, we read:

Malachi 3:1-3 (Common English Bible)

Look, I am sending my messenger who will clear the path before me;

        suddenly the Lord whom you are seeking will come to his temple.

        The messenger of the covenant in whom you take delight is coming,

says the Lord of heavenly forces.

2 Who can endure the day of his coming?

        Who can withstand his appearance?

He is like the refiner’s fire or the cleaner’s soap.

3 He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver.

        He will purify the Levites

            and refine them like gold and silver.

            They will belong to the Lord,

                presenting a righteous offering.

If you grew up singing in the tradition that I did, the White, Western choral tradition, you hear music to these words too, because they are set in The Messiah, the choral anthem about the life of Jesus Christ. And they’re kind of frightening – who will be able to stand when God appears? For he’s like a refiner’s fire.

Our images of fire and religion are so fearsome that it can sound like God wants to burn us down. 

But let’s look at what this is really saying.

Malachi is a little book of arguments between people and God. It’s set in the 5th or 4th century BC, when the people of the Southern kingdom of ancient Israel had been back in Jerusalem for a while – two, three, four centuries since they’d resettled after exile. Folks had come home. The city walls were rebuilt. Temple was renovated and back up and running.

But they’re not satisfied. Their lives, their nation feels small. They’ve got disappointments and they blame this on God.

And God’s like, I don’t know that it’s me. I think it might be you.

The people are like:

God, you’ve neglected us. God, you’re not just.

And so God says: 

here tell you what, I’ll send a messenger who will get you ready for something really good. And then, even better, I’ll come visit you myself. And the effect of this messenger and my time in your house will be that the stuff in you that is messing up your life will be washed, purified, burned away. 

Then you’ll be golden again, just right. The very mode of your existence will enable you to flourish, and that will make me smile. 

Now and again, there come times in our lives where things aren’t working as they are, where things have got to change. I wonder if you can remember a time in your life like that. 

I wonder if any of us feel like we’re in a time like that right now. A little stuck, like something’s got to give. 

Gloria Gaynor spent decades like this – pushing through a life that wasn’t working. 

This happens to people. It can happen to all the parts of us, our faith included. It happens to cultures, even religions. That we need to be renewed, that some stuff that isn’t working needs to be purified out, burned off. 

I think of the great writer James Baldwin, raised in Harlem to be a preacher. But as he confronted the dominant modes of Christian faith in this country, certainly in white churches but sometimes in Black churches and other churches of people of color, he wrote: 

It is not too much to say that whoever wishes to become a truly moral human being … must first divorce himself from all the prohibitions, crimes, and hypocrisies of the Christian church.”

(If you want to be a moral person, you’ve got to separate yourself from what passes for morality in a lot of the church.) He says:

If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.

Harsh statement on the surface, fire. But it’s true. Baldwin is doing something that at its prophetic best, the Black church has often done. At its prophetic best, members of the global church, the formerly colonized people and nations have done this too. They have said:

  • What has passed for Christian faith in many places is immoral. It needs to be shaken up, cleansed.
  • And what have passed for ideas about God have too often not been worthy of a loving God.
  • What have passed for our ideas about God have not been worthy of the God we meet in the face of Jesus.
  • And when that is so, those ideas have to go to the fire. It’s time we got rid of them. 

This fire language of God, our need for refining to get larger, freer, more loving, this is not just Old Testament stuff. It continues in Jesus.

In fact the New Testament argues that Jesus is the climactic figure in this line of prophets that God in Malachi calls his messengers, who will speak for God and show us the way. 

In this week’s Lenten guide, alongside Malachi, we get these words from Jesus:

Mark 9:49-50 (Common English Bible)

49 Everyone will be salted with fire.

50 Salt is good; but if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? Maintain salt among yourselves and keep peace with each other.”

Like food needs salt so it won’t spoil, we all need some fire. 

The context here is our wild ability to screw up on our own lives and to hurt each other. Specifically, Jesus is talking about people who hurt kids and how important it is that none of us become the kind of people that could hurt a kid. 

The kind of person that could abuse a kid, sure.

But maybe also the kind of person that could punish a kid too harshly, or that would ignore the kids around you and not bother to learn their names, or that wouldn’t take the time to listen to them, encourage them, or inspire them. 

I say it this way because of course, lots of us have been these people. And Jesus is like:

Let’s make a change. The past does not need to be prelude. You don’t have to keep living the way you’ve been living. It’s not too late, even if you’re 65, 75, 80, right? 

It’s never too late for renewal, for a change to come. 

Now I want to be clear that there is a difference between different types of change projects that can get promoted in the name of God. 

There are projects supposedly of purification, of sanctification, of transformation that are actually projects of control. Someone who’s afraid of change or afraid of you tries to dull your fire, doesn’t actually want a larger, freer, more loving version of you, they just want to make you into a plastic version of some performed model of a good person, in their eyes.

The so-called Christian purity culture of the 1980’s and 90’s and beyond that put no sex outside of straight marriage as like the #1 goal of Christian moral teaching did this. In trying to control people, it mostly shamed them, and especially shamed girls and women and queer folk, without helping us love God more or love ourselves more or even have better marriages. 

Colonial White Christianity was like this too – it claimed it was saving the world when really it was trying to dominate it. Baldwin’s like:

Let’s burn that version of God. It’s got to go. 

These same beautiful words, though – purification, sanctification, transformation can be descriptions of encounters with the holy and living goodness of God that set us on fire. That weed or burn out stuff that’s messing up our lives – and that make us larger, freer, more loving versions of ourselves. 

This is kind of like the difference between a ravaging wildfire and a controlled burn. The ravaging wildfires we’ve had more and more due to climate change and the loss of indigenous land management practices don’t make our land or our climate better – they just wipe out everything in our path and do life on earth a world of harm. But that same fire, used in a controlled manner as indigenous people have done for centuries, to clear out dead wood and brush, can clean a forest, make it stronger and healthier and more resilient.

These are the kinds of encounters with God we’re looking for, friends. 

Why, though, call it fire?

Friends, God’s doing some work of change and growth in me that is profound, it’s happening in core parts of my being, and when I talk to my pastor about this, I sometimes wonder what I need to be doing.

And he’s like:

I don’t think this is about what you are doing at all. It’s a thing that the Spirit of God is doing. It’s happening in you, it’s happening to you. Just pay attention and don’t back out. Just pay attention and don’t back out.

Friends, I wonder what you feel needs to be burned down in our world? Is there anyway it’s starting to happen already? Anyway the fire is burning. Maybe God is in that.

And I wonder if there are things in your life that need some fire. Are there ways of thinking and living and being in your life that are holding you back, that are shaping a way of life that you will regret in future years? What do we need cleansed, purified, burned off in us, so we won’t regret this time in our lives?

Let me give you a picture of how this works, from one of the tools God’s using in me. 

I go to a hot yoga studio once a week. Been doing that six or seven months. And I quote my teacher in the guide this week. 

Because as the heat in the room settles into us, and we move from warming up to really pushing our bodies and our minds, as the practice gets harder and harder, he’ll talk about letting the fire build, letting the fire do its work in us.

And I’ve heard him say, many times:

There’s no cleansing force like fire. There’s no cleansing force like fire.

I still don’t understand this entirely, but over time, as I persevere in the harder parts of the practice, I sense two dispositions, two attitudes slowly burning off. One is: I must be in control.

Because when I hold a pose past what I think my body is capable of, when my muscles are aching and shaking, and I’m sweating out and ready to give up, to instead breathe steady, focus my gaze, and to hold is to surrender. It’s to relinquish the control I can exercise to stop and to just let it go. That surrender seems like it’s burning off the: I must be in control in me that goes beyond that moment. 

And the other thing it’s burning off is: I can’t. Because just like you, just like all of us, with the help of God and friends, I’m capable of far more than the mediocrity I accept from myself – mediocrity of body, of moral fiber, of spiritual depth, and of love, justice, freedom, and joy. There’s so much more hiding behind the “I can’ts.” 

And a little bit of that is burning off in this practice. 

Less control, more surrender.

Less giving up, more perseverance.

It’s slow growth, but I value it. And it takes fire.

Which means I can’t make it happen. But I can give my attention to something that does it, and not back away from that. 

So it is with God. God is interested in us giving our attention to that in God which will burn off our “I must be in control” and our “I can’ts” and all the other stuff that makes us smaller, less free, less loving. 

We can’t self-improve our way into this because we’re not in charge of the world. We’re not really even in charge of our own lives, in that we can’t control them very well. 

But we can give our attention to God, to the person and words of Jesus, and to however it is that the Spirit of Christ is moving in us or around us to transform us into our fullness as children of God. 

Friends, as we close here, I ask:

If you could safely direct the flame of a fire to burn away bad things without doing any harm, what would you burn?

  • What do you wish for the fire of God to burn off in this world?
  • In your school or workplace?
  • What do you wish God would burn off and purify inside your home or inside yourself? 

Let’s name these things as a prayer. Name our desires for personal and collective purification as an offering. Trusting that God of the refiners fire hears and cares and will gently burn among us and within us.

God As Fire

As we get started on our Spring season of Lent, I remember in December when I was doing some preparation and prayer, trying to get my head around this theme of fire that Ivy and I were working with together. 

And there were three things that kept coming to mind.

One was the way we feel like so much of our world is on fire. The headlines of our news and sometimes the headlines of our hearts scream of toxic politics, disastrous climate change, brutal violence, crumbling religions – Christianity included, and yet a failure to imagine and organize together around a better future. 

This world is on fire, and that can be really scary. 

A second thing that kept coming to mind was this one weird and haunting line from the Bible. 

It’s in the New Testament’s letter called Hebrews. It’s a collection of reflections and encouragement for a first century Jewish community trying to follow in the way of Jesus. And near the end, without a ton of context, there’s this line, that says:

Hebrews 12:29 

“Our God is a consuming fire.”

Our God is a consuming fire.

  • What does this mean?
  • What is God like after all?
  • And how does fire as a metaphor for God speak?

I wonder if it speaks warmly to you – with the glow and wonder of candles and campfires, like the ones Ivy remembered and brought to life for us last week.

Or I wonder if it is scary as hell to you – some of us know about burns from fire, about home fires, about the threats people make using hellfire language. 

Our God is a consuming fire.

I wonder how this line speaks to you. 

Growing up, both my grandparents’ home just a few miles from me and the home I was raised in had fireplaces in the middle of them. 

The fireplace in my grandparents’ home was one of my favorite places as a kid. My brothers and I used to beg to sleep over at their house on Christmas Eve, where like many other nights of the year, we’d sit up late around the fireplace. 

It was so warm, so beautiful, and when we were little, my PopPop – that’s what we called my maternal grandfather -my Pop Pop had these salts he’d throw into the fireplace that would make the flame blaze different colors, like blue or green or deep red. 

I know now it’s chemistry, but when I was a kid, it seemed like magic, like PopPop was some kind of beloved wizard who’d make the most perfect fire more beautiful, more wonder-full. Staring into those colored flames, my little world seemed so big and beautiful and surprising. 

Glory!

The fireplace in our own home was a little more complicated. 

We didn’t have any special chemicals to change the color of the flames. 

But it was also a family gathering place in our house during long New England winter times, at least back then. And all kinds of things happened there. 

One of my more complex memories of shame, and of the things my family could and couldn’t talk about, happened around that fire. 

I was in seventh grade, I think. It was not a happy time in my life.

I had some secrets I kept, one of which was that I stole things.

I had, for instance, stolen a pack of cigarettes from the store as a curiosity, to see what smoking felt like. And I had smoked a couple of them, just a tiny bit, in the woods behind our house, and then forgotten about them.

But one night around the fire, as I remember it at least, my older brother was like: hey, look what I found in Steven’s jacket. And he held up the pack of cigarettes, or at least what was left of them.

I remember my face turning bright red with embarrassment, with shame. And I lunged toward my brother, grabbed the cigarettes, and threw them in the fire.

And as I did it, I said:

I have no idea how these got in there. I didn’t do it. They’re not mine. 

And I stormed out of the room.

This is a long time ago. I don’t know if everything in my memory is 100% accurate, but what I don’t remember is any follow-up. I don’t remember anyone asking me more about what happened, or why it was so upsetting, or if I wanted to talk about any of it. 

We just moved on, silent – the drama and shame and lies and tension of that moment just lingering in the family, smoldering with its own kind of fire. 

Even with those kinds of memories, though, I kept coming back to that fireplace, with and without the rest of my family. The feelings and memories I carry from that place are more complex than my grandparents’ fireplace, but even in my own house, I kept coming back. 

And I always took one of two seats in that room – the two seats closest to the fireplace. Where I could feel the heat there and get long, unfiltered stares at those dynamic, flickering, consuming flames I couldn’t take my eyes off of. 

I wonder if that complexity of experience, but that returning again and again to wonder isn’t a little bit like the experience the ancients had of God, when they associated God with fire. 

In the old stories of Exodus, fire is again and again a metaphor for God’s presence with ancient Israel. 

The scriptures in the first week of our guide to this season are all from Exodus, including this one:

Exodus 19:16-18 (Common English Bible)

16 When morning dawned on the third day, there was thunder, lightning, and a thick cloud on the mountain, and a very loud blast of a horn. All the people in the camp shook with fear.

17 Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their place at the foot of the mountain.

18 Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the Lord had come down on it with lightning. The smoke went up like the smoke of a hot furnace, while the whole mountain shook violently.

The 12 tribes that would make up the ancient community of Israel were desert nomads at this point in their story – free from past enslavement, but not yet settled and organized as a city-state or a nation.

And here, they gather around Mount Sinai to worship and reckon with their God.

I have no idea what literally was happening, like if someone could get photographs of moments like this from 3,400 years ago, what would we see?

We can’t of course, so we get the ancient metaphor and poetry of it all, where there was a storm with thunder and lightning, and the mountain where God is appearing feels like a blazing furnace, shrouded in smoke. 

What did it mean that God with them felt like a lightning strike turned to blazing, smoky fire?

On the one hand it scared the hell out of them. 

They were like:

Moses, you talk to God. We do not want to join you there.

They viewed the power of God with wonder and awe, but also something like terror. Who can see God and live?

And yet in this moment they assemble with Moses to be with God. And in the ancient story of these people, God terrifies them and yet they can’t help coming back and longing for God to be with them, hoping that God lives among them.

Because God may be wild and powerful, but they also knew they were better off with God than without. 

Why was that?

What spoke to them about God being a force, a person, who blazes with consuming fire?

What spoke to Moses in his first encounter with God? He was a middle aged man, full of his own secrets, living in geographic exile from his home, but also living in a kind of metaphorical exile too – not at home in his own body, in his own life and story, when working as a shepherd, he saw something like a burning bush. 

  • Was it the glare of the morning sun after a long night in the desert?
  • Was it a blaze of color in spring flowers spotted far from home?
  • Or was it a literal bright, but unconsuming wildfire?

We don’t know.

But we know that when Moses first discovers God, he discovers God as an un-consuming fire – dynamic, vibrant, powerful, blazing like flames, but not burning up or harming whatever God touches. Fire that burns bright without harm. 

This is God as Moses came to understand God – fierce and powerful enough to be an everlasting creator and mighty liberator but also safe and good enough to call friend.

  • What speaks to us when we think about a living God among us?
  • What speaks to us as we imagine a God who is somehow like fire?
  • Beyond the world on fire, beyond that haunting line about our God being a consuming – or is it un-consuming – fire? 

As Ivy and I started work on this season, the third thought that came to my imagination – and one that I think Ivy shared as well – was picturing us all again and again gathering around little fires and wondering together about God. 

I picture some of us like I do, awake early by ourselves with a candle lit, looking at the flame and wondering how God is here with us .

I pictured families over a meal, lighting a candle in the center of the table, and having a moment together to wonder about what God is like and how God is part of the household, and what God might be doing there

I pictured friends meeting up for a community group or whatever else and catching some time together to silently look at a flame and wonder about God. 

In this season’s Guide, there are six weeks of material. Today starts the first week, where we wonder about God as fire. 

It’s only 10 pages, and not too many words. But don’t rush through it. Pull it out again and again, even just to read one little bit, or to gaze at an image for a while. 

And this week, as with each of the six weeks, there is an invitation to sit by a fire for a moment. The hope is you do this at least once a week, but it could be every day if you like. 

If you’re lucky enough to have a fireplace or a firepit, awesome!

If you want to use a candle, that’s great! That’s probably what most of us will do. 

If it feels safer or better for our climate to use electric fireplaces or candles or have that image of a glowing fireplace on your television, that’s cool too.

Or burn incense, or find yourself an active volcano, or whatever.

But the idea is to be with yourself or even better, be with someone else by something like a flame, each week, even more than once a week, and wonder about God, and wonder about God with us, and say a prayer.

There’s a different way to do just this each week. 

See what it’s like.

And as you do this, one place in particular I encourage you to notice the presence of God isn’t just in the fire, but in the people you are with, yourself included, and what the flame illuminates there. 

Because as in the days of Moses, still now we most often and sometimes most brightly feel the fire of God among us. We sense the presence of God with most glory when we are with others.

I help organize the citywide clergy group for the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. We are Jewish, and Muslim, and Christian clergy, sometimes Buddhist leaders too, who like to know and understand and care about one another, and to practice solidarity as we work for a more just city together. 

And one of my co-leaders is a local rabbi named Toba Spitzer. Toba is wise and brilliant and interesting. She wrote a book called God is Here that inspired a sermon series of ours a year or two ago. 

And in our latest clergy gathering, we were looking at Muslim, Christian, and Jewish sacred texts that speak to the importance of our relationality, our togetherness.

For the Jewish text, Toba brought a rabbinic commentary that says:

“if two sit together and there are words of Torah [spoken] between them, then the Shekhinah [God’s Presence] abides between them.”

The Shekinah is an old Hebrew word that refers to the dwelling, or kind of settling presence of God. It’s when you know that God is here. 

And you’re speechless with wonder, or it’s so good and weird and sweet and powerful that you say a word like: wow, or like: glory!

And the rabbinic tradition says that whether you realize it or not, this is always happening when people together read the sacred text.

And the way my friend Toba and others have read this is even more broadly, like anytime we communicate for the sake of deeper understanding and wisdom together, to bring some benefit to the world, than the Shekinah, the dwelling of God that makes you say: Wow! Is there. 

When we’re in real communication, going deeper, together for the good, there’s that extra something we feel – that heat, that power, that warmth, that magic – why call it God? 

Maybe because it is.

Maybe because we need God among us, to bring fire to our earthy selves. 

And maybe because we don’t ever see God directly, like you can see your hand before your face.

No one has ever taken a photograph of God. 

Our experience of God is mediated. Even at its clearest, it’s a little bit indirect. We encounter God through things that evoke wonder, like the ocean, or perfect music, or amazing food, or yes, even fire. 

We encounter God through the person and the life and words of Jesus for sure.

And also through the presence of God when two or three are gathered in God’s name. To me that does not mean when two or three get religious. We know from the Bible and from our own experience, that being religious is no promise of the felt presence of God. But when two or three gather in the spirit of Christ, which is the Spirit of love, there’s something there.

My childhood memories around fire – some are of presence, like at my grandparents’ house where the warmth of the room and PopPop’s magic fire-changing power and all spoke to me of the presence of God. 

And some of my memories are of absence, like the time around the fire where I knew shame and distance and inability to really be together as we were. To me, all that spoke of a kind of absence of God.

Both can be true when we are with others. 

So I thought at the clergy gathering about recent human encounters when I could sense God’s shekinah – the dwelling, the settling of God among us that makes me say: Glory, wow. This is too good.

I thought when a goddaughter I really missed and wanted to see reached out to me to ask for prayer for something at her school. And the way she reached out and reconnected brought me so much joy.

I thought of one of you who asked me if you could share a confession in privacy and confidence. And how you bared your soul by sharing what is to you a most shameful memory, so that we could speak the truth together that even there, you are seen and loved and forgiven. So good. 

I thought of when I gather with my community group on Saturdays to read the Bible and to share of the most important things in our lives, and how it’s holy how we share the truths of our lives and seek the truth of God, in a circle of loving-kindness.

Or the couple minutes during Grace’s and my latest dance class we’re doing, where inexperienced stumblers that we are, for a few moments, something clicked, and we felt like we were gliding through the room together – two of us as one, soaring, dancing across the space. And it felt elegant and smooth and all sparky with decades of love. 

All really different kinds of moments, but all sparked by fire. All a window into the truth that God is there. 

There’s something about the openness and vulnerability that all these moments have in common. There’s something about the safety everyone has experienced, that this is a person and a place where you can be really open, where you can be true, and that will be safe. And there’s something about the tenderness and connection there, where one is saying – I see you truly, kindly. And the other is saying – I am seen truly, kindly. And in a way, everyone is saying both at once. 

It makes me feel like: wow, glory! So good. 

We begin, friends, where we will end in six weeks.

There are forms of fire that only burn… that “steal, kill, and destroy.” We’ll talk more about those. This is the kind of fire that is not God. This is Jesus’ description of every force in and among us that is an enemy of God.

But there are also forms of fire that open us up, that make us larger and freer and more loving – that set our heart on fire in the best of ways. And love seems to make space for those.

Love is the hearth where fire roars.

Love is the ground where we sense God and say glory.

Love is the wick where fire burns.

On Fire For God

Each year, in the weeks before Easter, our church embarks on a season of spiritual formation. We take time and attention to look reflectively at our lives, to welcome God’s guidance and presence. This season in the year where winter meets spring is called Lent. Lent comes from an Old English word meaning “spring.” It’s used to refer to the six-week period before Easter Sunday. For centuries, Jesus followers have marked this period of anticipation for Easter through prayer,  fasting and giving. 

A few years ago we decided by whim and by Spirit – I believe… that we should plan for a 4-year series of  Lenten seasons in advance. And the series should be on the elements – Water, Earth, Wind and Fire. The last two year’s Lenten themes were Water and Earth. This year’s theme is Fire. It feels right, it feels timely. 

Fire, whether regarded as a controlled source of warmth or an incinerating force, offers us intensity. And in my own spirit I’m grasping for an intensity that can meet the fervor of the world around us. Fire that’s unabashedly mesmerizing, beautiful, and powerful. A metaphor that you can really lean into that stands up —  that doesn’t look away from the realities of the world – but looks at it squarely, blazing and crackling as it does. 

This Lent we’ll turn to the spiritual significance of fire through many lenses.  Each Sunday to come we will explore a different theme of fire. We’ll talk about what to do and where to find hope when it seems the world is on fire. We’ll think about the passion and light and power of God.  We’ll talk about the cleansing and purifying fire of the Spirit, and discuss less-toxic, kinder ways to think about concepts like judgment and hell. *Not only will our Sunday services cover this — but so does our Lent Guide which covers all that good stuff and more!!*

We hope through this journey of Lent we’ll remember that on this Earth – we too are the fires that take light, that roll through our landscapes – schools, workplaces, sidewalks –  signaling  how to be in partnership and action with a God that is “larger, free-er, and more loving” than we could ever imagine (as James Baldwin emboldens us to do).

This morning, I invite you to wonder what a season like this could kindle in you? I invite you to wonder if the warming presence of God could flame and breathe new urgency into your love of life. THIS LIFE. All of this life, its beauty and its brokenness.

Prayer: 

God of fire — thank you for your presence this morning that offers us warmth, clarity, rest, and light. In ways that we need more of all those things – greet us this morning with your Spirit that never holds back – but comes full force in abundance with what our heart needs. Fold into us the embers of your light that never are extinguished —  the divine sparks that keep us going, keeps us hoping — and you, the Divine spark that keeps us. Keeps us close.

In the name of the Fire,

The Flame

And the Light,
(John O’Donohue)

Amen

Story: “On Fire for God”

Now there’s nothing I love more than being warm. . . maybe other than being ‘hot.’  I talk about the weather all the time,  the forecast, the temperature — it’s not just small talk to me, it’s part of the way I experience the world and God. I grew up in Maine, with a wood stove in our kitchen — our only source of heat and there wasn’t a day that I wasn’t as close to that stove as possible. I take scalding hot showers, do the dishes in blistering hot water, I have the seat heaters on in any car all year ‘round in the middle of summer … I love to be warm. 

So when I first heard the spiritual question,

Is your heart on fire for God?” 

when I was eight or nine years old from one of my summer camp counselors.

I was stunned. “Wait – that’s an option?”

My heart could be a source of heat and warmth?  Well I’m not sure it is — but I am game to find out!

I didn’t grow up with Lent as part of my tradition or yearly rhythm.

But I did grow up with going to an annual Christian summer camp! It was a small camp on a small lake, about 15 minutes from where I grew up in Maine. 

And this camp was a highlight of my year. I’d pack a good three weeks in advance, I truly looked forward to it. 

Each year, toward the end of the week of camp we’d build a fire, a big bonfire  – as a culmination – and there’d be some sort of spiritual talk (during which I’d usually be strategizing how much money I had left in my snack bar kitty and whether it was enough to get both Swedish fish & sweet tarts). I’d know the end of the talk was finally coming when the cadence and volume of the leader would get a bit amped.. And then the invitation would come,

“If your heart is on fire for God – come on up!”

And all of us would gather up around the bonfire.. 

Faces aglow. 

Hearts on fire – as best as we knew.

I wonder what memories or thoughts come to the surface as you hear the question, “Is your heart on fire for God?” 

Part of the beauty of the Lent Guide this year is that in addition to selections of scripture and some provoking commentary written by Steve… is that it is peppered with a bunch of ‘wondering questions.’ Taking the nod from our kids church philosophy of Godly Play that to wonder kindles curiosity, reflection, and engages the Spirit of God in ways that unveil God’s great love for us. 

And this is the richness of Lent. 

Perhaps for many of you Lent is a season of self-denial, of fasting, of giving something up. I know that these components are so meaningful to many of you. We’ll make room for that but also lean into wondering questions, reflection, prayer… to illuminate just how this season is also about God’s fiery love for us.  

But Lent doesn’t always lead with the “God’s great fiery love for you” vibe. I mean it starts with the remnants of fire… the absence of fire – ash.  Ash Wednesday – a reminder of our human limits, our mortality, that we’ll all die.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” 

Lent is an acknowledgement that life can be gritty.  And it doesn’t try to soften that – it actually invites you into that reality — with nothing to buffer. That’s what I appreciate so much about Lent.  There is no cheery Santa, or candy canes to balance the darkness and somberness.  It’s an invitation to a landscape of ash. Of nothingness — to see what can begin again. Of wilderness and God’s voice asking,

I wonder from the ashes what we can find/create with one another? I wonder what embers I can fan for you?

I wonder how you’ll find and hold on to God’s love in your fears, trauma, doubts – when it feels like there’s nothing in your hands to grab on to – it’s all just silt.   

Lent is a deep, deep season. 

It is about God’s love for us — us that God created from dust. 

It’s about God’s love in us – – given life by breath.

It’s about God’s love moving through us —  by the fire of the Spirit of God.

Reminding us that these elements — dust, breath, fire — that seem like nothing, prove to be everything.

And Lent invites us to consider what living a life with this love at center, “with a heart on fire for God” looks like.  

I think this passage in Romans captures some of its essence: 

ROMANS 12:9-12

Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other. Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic—be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord! Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer. 

2- Story: “On Fire for God”

When I heard the invitation. “If your heart is on fire for God, come on up!” 

I went up.

I went up  in good faith. But I think I was mostly pretending. 

I so wanted my heart to be on fire for God. 

But I didn’t know what it really meant – and I didn’t know what it really felt like.

I wanted what seemed like this unwavering blaze of faith and courage — and just steam-rolling through life with confidence. My friends at camp weren’t hesitating  – they were enthusiastic – running to that fire.

I wanted that “high” of friendship and what seemed like a fun and joyful GOD – to sustain me once I left camp… But when I got home my life felt the same as I had left it – annoying four brothers, boring, and cold. 

It felt bewildering to me – – how to fan that flame out in the wilderness of life.

Each year after camp ended, we would be invited to give our testimony at a Sunday service —  a reflection of our time and I never shared because I felt like I’d failed somehow – that I was just “smoldering” – not “on fire!”

Part of that sense of “smoldering” was:

  • My childhood imagination pretty quickly was challenged once I learned that I didn’t in fact carry around with me a personal inner furnace that kept me warm at all times
  • some of it was just naturally developmentally appropriate, and 
  • some of it was the foundational theology that underpinned my experience.  All the ways Christians have historically and still do misuse the metaphor of fire to say all kinds of wild things about the character of God, eternal judgment and hell that try to scare and control us — this was true of my upbringing and also influenced a sense of “being on fire” or “not” as a result of good or bad choices. We’ll press into this reality a bit in the middle of the Lent Guide – – it’s a good one, “The Fires of Judgement!”

Anyway – I did think that 

-“If” I was to be a heart-on-fire girl I surely would have  figured it out by now, after multiple summers.

– I did think “if” my heart was on fire for God, I certainly would be more like Peggy Jones in the couple pews over from me – – opening her Bible and taking notes.. 

– I did think that “If” my heart was on fire for God, I certainly should give up thinking about candy during a sermon.

There were definitely some conditionals that were setting up in my thinking.

And there are likely easy I can tell this story – or you can hear this story as a point in time – an adolescent summer camp story. But I think there are elements that get woven all through our not just spiritual life – but all of life… and the Lenten journey mirrors how this ‘same dynamic’ goes down with Jesus in the wilderness as well. 

LENT

Lent is commonly described as a commemoration of Jesus’ 40-day fast in the desert, when he was tempted by evil that prowled around him. And interestingly the voices that came to tempt Jesus start with this conditional  word “if” — — – –  which is perhaps the greatest evil..

The voices challenge him: 

“If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

“If you are the Son of God,  throw yourself down.”

“If you will bow down and worship me” – I will give you all this…

“If” it’s such a destabilizing word.

“If your heart is on fire for God… then….”

But Jesus rejects all of this the very premise of it — he says,

“No thanks, I live by every word that comes from the mouth of God, don’t test the Lord your God, worship the Lord your God.”

He gives IN –  He doesn’t give in to the conditions, or the temptations.

He gives in –  ALL IN – to the love of God.

This is the invitation of Lent – to give “in” – not necessarily “give up” something.

It’s not “if”  you are “doing Lent” then you are “giving up” x, y, or z.”

The irony of Lent as Richard Rohr says, is that it’s not about “trying hard” it’s not a “trying” at all – it’s a foundational “giving in.” 

Now, Lent is to in solidarity accompany the journey of Jesus in the wilderness….. and it is to reflect on our lives. And examine where our faith has picked up some grime – some sediment.. where we’ve attached to false premises … .or collected extra things on the back of our own ambitions.

And it is time to re-set, to take note, to orient again to the love of God. And our reflection is not in vain, it is to open up our stories to the stories of our spiritual ancestors… The stories where their hearts were ablaze with the goodness and trust and faith of God, even in their very own wildernesses, and where we can sit in the glow of their joy, their strength — letting it fan our own heart’s embers. 

In Psalm 126 we read these words of our ancestors:

When the Lord changed Zion’s circumstances for the better,

    it was like we had been dreaming.

 Our mouths were suddenly filled with laughter;

    our tongues were filled with joyful shouts.

It was even said, at that time, among the nations,

    “The Lord has done great things for them!”

Yes, the Lord has done great things for us,

    and we are overjoyed.

Lord, change our circumstances for the better,

    like dry streams in the desert waste!

Let those who plant with tears

    reap the harvest with joyful shouts.

Let those who go out,

    crying and carrying their seed,

    come home with joyful shouts,

    carrying bales of grain!

This Psalm is one in a special group of psalms, the Songs of Ascent  comprising Psalms 120—134. They are also called Pilgrim Songs.

This is a scripture where our ancestors declare,

“We have faced and we DO face exile and loss of fortune. But we live in hope – hope of the return of DREAMS”

I wonder if we could dream again? 

Hope to have our mouths filled with laughter, and hope to have the nations declaring that God is good. God has done great things for us. As our ancestors sang in memory and nostalgia, WE catch their flame and continue to pray, even as they did,

‘Restore our dreams, O God and cling to the promise that while, in fact, we do live in exile and wilderness sowing in tears and sorrow, we can move forward with our ‘hearts on fire’ in belief of a good and life-giving God — a “God that has done great things for them – and a God who does great things for us.”’

Here’s the thing — Lent has often been given a quick descriptor as a season of “giving something up.” And it’s true we might just find ourselves giving up a lot of things as we return and give in to the love of God.  

We may find where we have attached ourselves to things that have promised us relief, escape, even momentary joy — and we may find that those are tangible things in our lives that do – as we end up giving in to the love of God –  end up burning off like dross.  

Some of the ways that that feels most doable is through prayer. We are just ending a whole series on prayer.. And it’s great timing because Lent is also a season of prayer. Prayer that helps identify all of that excess stuff we might be carrying around… it helps clear the hazardous brush that’s built up around us – that is in jeopardy of engulfing us in flames of despair.

This Psalm was a prayer often sung by Jews traveling to Jerusalem for one of the three main annual Jewish festivals (to remember the wilderness and God’s provision within it,  and God’s continual promise of being with them in the future).  They would sing and pray these prayers on the “ascent” – as they traveled up the hill to the city. Recalling a history of standing their ground when they were in trouble and devoting themselves to prayer. A present day invitation to us too. 

Lent is a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage of the heart – a pilgrimage of descent and ascent. One, that if we can make the journey illuminates the world around us – in such a way that we can see the landscape riddled with fracture, and war and division — but also see in the cracks the blazing beauty of God’s love roaring through.

Geologists tell us that at the heart of the earth, there is no neutral or cold center, but rather a great heat.

Thousands of kilometers below the earth’s crust there is a heart of fire, molten magma. — John O’ Donohue

Maybe that’s what Lent helps us see – that molten magma rippling under the surface of everything. Piercing love – for us, and for the world around us. A world that is worthy and so greatly in need of such love. This is the work of Lent —  … where we pray together for strength for the dreams of this world, our households, our kids, our nation – our year ahead.  

Throughout this Lenten Guide there is a beautiful simple prayer practice that you are invited to try. You can try it alone – your household, your family – no matter the age… with a community group … The practice includes a candle — actual fire!, and integrates some wondering questions for you to form your own prayers…..whatever they might be  — Padraig O’Tuama the poet and theologian, says,

“Prayer is a small fire lit to keep cold hands warm”

and maybe you’ll find that it will keep your hearts aflame as well. 

We have lots to pray for, friends. 

Oppression will continue to course through the veins of society. Dominant and evil forces will push and pull on our collective life. But Lent gives us an intentional time to sharpen our clarity:  

To “Hate evil, and hold on to what is good.” 

“TO SHOUT – CHANGE OUR CIRCUMSTANCES GOD!  RESTORE OUR DREAMS!” I don’t want to live in this cold, junky, broken down “house.” I KNOW GOD YOU HAVE DONE GREAT THINGS! I KNOW YOU CAN DO GREAT THINGS” HELP US. RESTORE US. 

Set my heart on fire!

Help me find again that my story and the story of Jesus are bound together in hope, faith, love and community.

2024 is already on fire. It absolutely has all the components of being combustible.

  • Wars across the globe. 
  • An election that we are already feeling the heat of.
  • The actual temperature of the Earth rising. 

Richard Rohr says that

“Lent is just magnified and intensified life.”

All of it, the tears, the laughter, the forces of empire, the forces of love –  the beauty, the singing, the prayer – some of it burning off, some of it flaming the flame. And us drawing closer to God and closer to others as we sift through it all – unto to a more just, more free world for all of us.   

3 – Story: “On Fire for God”

I could imagine an alternative to the summer camp invitation, “if your heart is on fire for God – please come up..” could have been. “You all are fire!” “You all such awesome, fun, curious kids!”  Come on up here – let’s light something on fire — (like sparklers).”

I wonder if that would have registered as a little less conditional and a little more of the

“Love each other like the members of your family – be the best at showing honor to each other!”

I was at the GBH event a little over a week ago – that Steve mentioned last Sunday. And I was taken aback by the conversation between two colleagues who were introducing this new podcast called, “What is Owed?” (coming out Feb. 15th) – a podcast seeking to understand what reparations might look like in Boston. Saraya (who’s the host), and her colleague Jerome both were on the panel. And the interviewer asked Jerome,

“what did you enjoy most about producing this podcast?”

And Jerome turned to Saraya and said,

“It’s been working with you.”

And then he proceeded to go on –

“the thoughtfulness, humor, the quick-wittedness that you brought to the work made me be able to say after every interview — that was the best interview. No, that  was the best interview.. Actually this one, this last one — was the best interview…. And mean it!”

And there sat Jerome just flaming the fire of goodness in Saraya.

He flamed this inner-part of her – “You are fire!” – and what you touch – what you bring voice to, what you unveil – the work you do, is also fire. 

Maybe that’s what this Lent can feel like to you too. That God could just be fanning the indwelling of the Spirit of God that is already within you. Helping you peel back some of the layers that have crowded it – to make room for your heart to really fire… So you can hear God say day after day .. 

“wow, I love you the most today. And then the next day say, “actually today, today — I love you the most …”  

I do think we need our hearts to be made incandescent by the Spirit’s fire. 
I do think that’s what is going to help us all LOVE LIVING OUR LIFE. 

And I do think that this Lent can aid you, guide you in experiencing some of the warm love of God –  jump in a community group, do it with a friend – definitely download the Lent Guide! 

Let me pray for us,

God could you help us love this life, one another, and you – without pretending?

Could you help us to name and hate what is evil and hold on to what is good. 

Could you help us to love each other like the members of your family and show honor to each other?

Could you help us to be enthusiastic – to be ON FIRE IN THE SPIRIT with you God?

May we be happy in your hope, stand our ground when we’re in trouble and devote ourselves to prayer.  

In the name of the Fire,
The Flame,
And the Light.   
(John O’Donohue)

– Amen