Saturday, May 28, 2016

Pentecost Sermon: Lighting Fires

This sermon has been preached, over the past few weeks, in many versions, but it was first preached at St Aiden's, Camano Island, on Pentecost.

When the leaders of Jerusalem saw the apostles on Pentecost, speaking in different languages, spreading fire, they thought they were just a bunch of drunk, hillbilly Galileans disrupting the public order.

We had Pentecost a little early this week. That is the thing about the Holy Spirit. She is rarely scheduled. Rarely when we expect her.  We had a Pentecost experience in a downtown church hall on Thursday night, with the mingled smells of fried chicken and cigarette smoke.

This past week, we hosted an event we called State of the Streets. We invited the community to come listen to people who were experiencing poverty and homelessness to speak. We invited our congregation, our people to speak about their lives and realities.

We had no idea what to expect. We had no idea if anyone would actually speak. We had no idea if anyone would show up to listen.

What actually happened is that the place was packed to overflowing. We ate 80 lbs of fried chicken. A people started sharing their stories. They told about police beatings and jail stints, they told about losing children, they told about how hard it is to get jobs, they talked about daily assaults on their dignity, they talked about how hard it was to find social services, they talked about losing everything.

We clapped harder than we have ever clapped for the bravery of people telling their stories. We cried and we laughed.  In a community where nearly 50% of our people experience poverty and where almost 1500 are counted as homeless (in a rural county), this is the first time an event has been held like this.

And, just as the Pentecost sermon that Peter first gave did not end with the crucifixion, we also dreamed. We wanted better jobs and better lives. We celebrated the little victories over addiction. We closed, singing together, and lighting candles for lost loved ones and a better future.

You know those tongues of fire in our text. I have no idea what that means or what those fires looked like, but I can tell you what ours look like. They look like Zippos and cheap cigarette lighters.

I always carry a lighter.  

When I think of those flames appear on the heads of those who speak, I think of the fires that we light.

The fires we lit this last Thursday night.

Everyone on the street carries a lighter. It lights candles for warmth on cold nights in tents. It lights cigarettes and pipes. Lights fires, if you are lucky enough not to get caught cooking in the city with open flames.

Sometimes tents burn down and a guy came in our meal program last winter with two of his fingers burned off when he fell asleep next to an open flame on a cold night.

These lighters light our candles as we sing. At our last service in our church in Westport, one of our young kids flipped out his lighter lit everyone’s candle for them.

It lights cigarettes as I hang out with our young people, many of them on the run from the law for some poverty related offense or another, in camps, in alleys, outside the church door.

The story of Acts, of the birth of the church, of the beginning of the Jesus movement, is a story of high drama. It is the story of a bunch of poor people who started a movement. Who vowed to take care of each other.

The story of a bunch of people on fire who caught the world on fire.

The story of a bunch of troublemakers and disrupters of the public order and the status quo.

The story of people who were willing to risk it all to make a difference. Don’t forget, shortly after Pentecost, the apostles get a beat down and jail time.

I started ministry in Aberdeen nearly three years ago. Over the past year and a half, we have supported people organizing for their rights. One of these efforts has been by a group of 15-20 people who are homeless, who have organized Grays Harbor’s first tent city. They wanted people to start talking about homelessness. They wanted something to be done about housing. They wanted to create a little bit of stability.

I’m there often and I’ll tell you about the stories that we tell as we light cigarettes in alleys and camps and in front of the church door. I’ll tell you about the one a young woman from tent city told me as she smoked. Early that morning, while they were sleeping, three officers entered camp and told them to open their tent. They hit her, pushed her out of the way, and jumped on her boyfriend, beating him up and eventually arresting him. Like the majority of people we know and work with, he had a warrant out for his arrest. These warrants might be out for anything—failure to appear or pay fines for poverty related offenses, failure to check in with a probation officer, etc. The church—and we—had just taken a public stand, saying that we would not turn in people for warrants and considered church space sanctuary space.

This young man is still in jail. You can all pray for him, if you would. 

That is what Pentecost is all about for me. Lighting fires together, fires for change, for liberation. Taking care of each other. Risking everything to try to build a better world.

In our corner of the world, we are honored to support courageous people lighting fires, speaking out, struggling for their own liberation.

“‘In the last days, God says,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your young men will see visions,
    your old men will dream dreams.

These days are still the days we live in. Pentecost still comes. The Holy Spirit, she still shows up and surprises us.

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