Sermon 6.9.19 Pentecost “Fire and Fear”

Scripture:  Acts 2:1-21

Pastor:  Rev. Kim P. Wells

Between about 70,000 and 120,000 years ago, humans figured out how to create fire.  They knew about fire from lighting and other natural occurrences but they eventually figured out  how to make fire.  This was transformative in human history.  Making fire.  With fire, humans learned to cook food.  And they could keep warm which made it possible for them to migrate to colder climates.  With fire, they could have light after the sun went down extending the hours for activity and interaction each day.  Fire was also used to clear land for growing food.  It was used to make tools and pottery.  

And fire had another important function.  It was used for protection.  Fearsome animals were afraid of fire.   Yes, think of Mowgli driving away the man-eating tiger Shere Khan in the movie Jungle Book.  Fire helped humans to be safe and protected.  

Given the power of fire, it is understandable that in the Bible fire is used as a symbol of the Divine.  It is associated with God like in the story of Moses encountering the burning bush on the mountain.  Moses hears God speaking from the bush.  And this morning we heard how tongues of flame alit on the heads of the disciples.  This is a sign of the presence of God, the Holy Spirit.  The disciples in this story were scared, laying low, and staying in a closed room.  They were afraid that they might be associated with Jesus and end up being arrested or crucified as he was.  So they were in hiding.  Until the Spirit came, as we heard today, symbolized by the flames on the head of each disciple and the sound of the rushing wind.  This is like the scene of the light and the wind in the creation story in Genesis where the wind is brooding over the waters and light appears.  In the Pentecost story something new is being created.  The church.  These few followers of Jesus receive this power, this Spirit, and they are no longer afraid.  It drives out their fear and they emerge from their closed room.  They are overwhelmed with the love and power and passion that they experienced with Jesus.  And so, like Jesus, they become bold, speaking out, so that all may hear of the God of powerful love.  They form a courageous community, and then other communities, of people who are enlivened by the story of Jesus, the God of love that he talked about, and the commonwealth of God that he created among his followers when he was with them.  We trace the beginnings of the church as a faith community back to this Pentecost moment.  This is when, by the power of Divine Love, a few sacred people were transformed into a bold community that evolved into the church sharing the light and love of God and we are a continuing part of that manifestation today.  

Now fear can be important.  We are right to be afraid in dangerous circumstances so that we do what is safe and protect ourselves.  Recently we have been hearing about the problems on Mount Everest this climbing season.  So far 11 people have died this year trying to get to the top of Everest or Chomolungma as it is called by the people of Tibet.  Yes, one of the issues is the crowds.  You may have seen the picture of the people lined up to get to the summit.  It looks like people in line for a ride at Disney.  But a bigger problem is that the people who are going are not properly prepared.  They are not proficient in the skills needed for the effort.  They have not cultivated the physical capacity for the exertion that is required.  We could say that they do not have the proper level of fear which would drive them to prepare properly or to forego undertaking something so hazardous.  It is not an excursion at a theme park.  So fear can work for us.  It can protect us and lead us to make decisions that save lives.  

But fear can also lead us to into futility.  It can lead us to shut down.  It can be immobilizing.  We say we are frozen with fear.  And fear can also stoke our worst impulses.  It can cause us to leave rationality behind.  And it can make us easy to manipulate.  Julius Caesar was an extremely effective leader of the Roman Empire, and he exerted his leadership and control largely by making the people afraid.  He has this to say about his tactics:  “Beware the leader who bangs the drums of war in order to whip the citizenry into patriotic fervor, for patriotism is indeed a double-edged sword.  It both emboldens the blood, just as it narrows the mind.  And when the drums of war have reached a fever pitch and the blood boils with hate and the mind has closed, the leader will have no need in seizing the rights of the citizenry.  Rather, the citizenry, infused with fear and blinded by patriotism, will offer up all their rights unto the leader and gladly so.  How do I know?  For this is what I have done.  And I am Caesar.”  

Fear can be used to control and manipulate.  This is happening in our country today.  Fear is at the heart of the racism, ethnocentrism, and homophobia in our country.  People are afraid of the “other” be it someone from a different culture or someone with a different skin tone or someone with a different sexual or gender identity.  

We see this kind of fear at play in the situation with the property next to the church.  The property is to be sold to Boley Centers and their plan is to put in housing primarily for people with special needs who would otherwise be homeless.  Some people in Lakewood Estates are against the Boley project and are trying to stop it.  I think they are afraid of these “other” people – special needs people.  They are afraid this will negatively impact their property values and some are up in arms about this.  But these are irrational fears.  If people are concerned about their property values, what they should be attacking is global warming because sea level rise is what is most likely to tank their home values and it’s not far off. 

Fear can be dangerous.  It can keep people separated and isolated.  Isolation breeds its own problems – mental health problems, emotional stability problems, and other things which can lead to mass shootings and other horrors.  Separation also prevents people from working together for the common good.  The New Testament tells us that love casts out such fear.  

The Pentecost story reminds us that the flame which drives away fear is given to us so that we can be bold and courageous in speaking out with love.  We are given the power to confront the fears that separate and divide us.  We are needed to raise our voices and take bold actions to help create communities where everyone is welcome, where everyone is taken care of, where everyone is valued.  And where we take care of the earth and heal the damage that we have caused to the planet.  Pentecost reminds us to let those flames alight upon us, driving away our fear, so that we are emboldened to perform drastic acts of courage and love in the world as Jesus and his first followers did. 

In the  Pentecost story, the wind was heard and the flames were seen.  And the disciples proclaimed a bold message.  And by the Spirit, we are told that all the people gathered in Jerusalem from many different cultures, could understand what the disciples were saying, each hearing in their own language, languages the disciples did not know how to speak.  But their message got through.  As we think about the Spirit being given to us, we, too, have a message to share.  We need to speak with the language of love, not fear.  The language of courage, not fear.  The language of generosity, not fear.  The language of compassion, not fear.  The language of justice, not fear.  The language of understanding, not fear.  The language of forgiveness, not fear.  May the flame of Divine Love burn brightly within us driving away our needless fears so that we can be bold like those first disciples.  The message still needs to be heard.  Now more than ever!  Amen.  

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

Author: Rev. Wells

Pastor of Lakewood United Church of Christ since 1991. Graduate of Wellesley College and Union Theological Seminary of New York.

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