November 13, 2016

A Certain Kind of Fire

This Sunday, like last Sunday, a lesson from scripture invites us to engage with the fantastic worldview and images of apocalyptic thought. I wish it wasn’t so.

Reading passages like Daniel 7 and Luke 21 in the context of this bruising election season makes it difficult to overcome the temptation to equate “the other side” of the body politic with the enemies of God and the cosmic forces of evil. It’s a temptation we need to resist.

We need to resist this temptation because history and experience demonstrate that it’s a good deal easier to convince ourselves that the Scripture has lots to say about the changes the people with whom we disagree need to make, but surprisingly little to say to us. To that end, I want to be up front with you about where I’m coming from this morning.

Long before Election Day, I believe fear began exerting a powerful influence in our country across the political spectrum. From 9/11 to the Great Recession, from decades of stagnant wages to the ways in which our incredibly connected culture connects us to stories of injustice the world over, in blue states, red states, or swing states, one doesn’t need to look far to find someone who believes that something essential about themselves and their identity is under attack—their rights, their family, their livelihood, their life.

Sadly, while fear unites us, we divide ourselves by whose fears we judge to be reasonable and whose are merely the products of paranoia. As a result, we spend our time arguing about whose fears are the correct fears and whose are unfounded, when what we really should be doing is acknowledging that the fears and their consequences are real and that we care about each other’s wellbeing and security.

I also believe that the Good News of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is fear’s antidote.

I believe that the way Jesus loves us, empowers us, and builds us into a Spirit-filled community devoted to reconciliation and peace sets us free from fear’s chains.

I believe that it is our mission as Christians, then, to serve the fearful with compassion and to expose fear mongers with love, because, as Saint John writes, “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”

As members of Christ’s body—the Church—we are heirs to God’s promise; we are fiercely loved by God and empowered to love one another boldly.

Now, back to those wild and apocalyptic words.

Martin Luther King Jr. preached his last sermon on April 3, 1968 at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee. Many of you are familiar with that sermon’s dramatic conclusion, the video of which appears in practically every retrospective of the Civil Rights movement. This is the moment when, with the congregation hanging on every word, King spoke of longevity, doing God’s will, going up the mountain, and looking over.

“And I’ve seen the Promised Land,” he declared. “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

It’s to an earlier section in King’s historic speech to which I want to draw your attention this morning, a passage, I believe, that reveals a powerful point of contact between faithful hearts and Jesus’ words in Luke’s twenty-first chapter.

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus talked about living with courage and faith in the midst of evil’s chaos, and he made in that moment a promise to his friends.

I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.
In Memphis, Dr. King remembered how that promise nurtured and strengthened the movement he led.

At Mason Temple, Dr. King allowed his memories to take him back, one last time, to the days of struggle in Birmingham, Alabama where, just five years earlier, he’d penned his famous letter from jail, and the place where he’d come to know the vicious tactics of Bull Connor, the city’s infamous Public Safety Commissioner.

Calling to mind the abuses heaped upon those who marched for equality, King remembered how God’s promise led them through those dark days. Confident that he and his followers possessed gifts and a dignity that the world didn’t give them and that the world couldn’t take away, King spoke about how faith opened his eyes to a reality that his oppressors just couldn’t see.

“There was a certain kind of fire,” he said, “that no water could put out.”

[In Birmingham] we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were Baptist…we had been immersed. If we were Methodist…we had been sprinkled, but we knew water.

That couldn’t stop us…

And every now and then we’d get in the jail, and we’d see the jailers looking through the windows being moved by our prayers, and being moved by our words and our songs. And there was power there which Bull Connor couldn’t adjust to; and so we ended up transforming Bull into a steer, and we won our struggle in Birmingham.

“There was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out.”

Jesus said, “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

According to Luke, Jesus made the promise at a critical moment in his ministry—the week that would end with him alone, dead, and buried in a tomb.

It was the first Holy Week and Jesus was on a collision course with the imperial and religious establishments that would take his life and shatter his disciples’ spirits. Aware of all that was about to take place, Jesus sought to center his disciples in God’s loving presence.

“Even in a world gone mad,” Jesus seemed to say, “God will not let us go.”

When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified…Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
But even though the heavens shake, God’s love remains a strong foundation.
I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.
Can there be any doubt that the disciples remembered these words in a new light when Jesus was raised from the dead?

Can there be any doubt that the disciples drew strength and inspiration from these words when loyalty to Jesus and his kingdom set them at odds with the principalities and powers of their own age?

Can there be any doubt that disciples who are committed to following Christ in our time will demonstrate in prayer, worship, and loving action that this promise remains Good News to people who feel that the ground beneath their feet is shaking and their world is turning upside down?

Do you know anyone who feels like that today?

Do you know anyone who felt like that at about 3:00 Wednesday morning?

Amid life’s most turbulent moments, faithful hearts still believe in and aim to see our lives shaped by Jesus’ promise.

I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.

Even though the heavens shake, God’s love remains a strong foundation.

When we are at our lowest and fear’s darkness surrounds us, God is present, God’s love endures, and God’s blessings show us the way to go.

If we revere this message as Good News, then it is our mission as Christians to serve the fearful with compassion and to expose fear mongers with love.

I believe that fear exerts a powerful influence in our country across the political spectrum. Sadly, while fear unites us, we divide ourselves by whose fears we judge to be reasonable and whose are merely the products of paranoia. As a result, we spend our time arguing about whose fears are the correct fears and whose are unfounded, when what we really should be doing is acknowledging that the fears are real and that we care about each other’s wellbeing and security.

When my son has a nightmare and is worried that there's a monster in his closet, I can explain that his fear is unreasonable, or I can let him know that he's alright and that I'm there for him.

I dont know that we ever outgrow the need to know that we're not alone.

We argue so much about whose concerns are legitimate and whose are unfounded when what we really need to do is commit ourselves to having each other's back.

When your world is spinning, I'm going to be there with you. That's the Christian response. That's a holy response.

I believe that the Good News of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is fear’s antidote and I believe that the way Jesus loves us, empowers us, and builds us into a Spirit-filled community devoted to reconciliation and peace sets us free from fear’s chains.

Therefore, when the world shakes, the Church must hold fast to Jesus and his wisdom.

When the world shakes, the faithful believe, hope, and endure.

When the world shakes, we love (and serve, and seek justice, and practice mercy, and embrace the marginalized and outcast) because love is a certain kind of fire that no water can put out.

As members of Christ’s body—the Church—we are heirs to God’s promise; we are fiercely loved by God and empowered to love one another boldly.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

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