Throughout my high school years, I spent several weeks of my summers in Upstate New York at a performing arts camp. One summer, the counselors decided it would be fun to take our bunk of 14 year old girls on an actual camping trip. Now keep in mind that this was not an outdoorsy camp- we were all performing arts people, not necessarily outdoors people! But we gathered up our sleeping bags and overnight stuff and went out into the woods for a night under the stars…come to find out that no one really knew how to build a fire or keep it going! After a few attempts, we managed to get a fire going and we spent the night huddled around it because it was so cold…except for when we would wander off in groups to go the bathroom…although none of us really knew how to pee in the woods either! But as the night went on, we discovered the importance of keeping the fire going. It was our source of heat, light, and warmth, and in the morning, our plan was to attempt to make breakfast with its help. We took turns keeping it alive, taking shifts in the middle of the night, having wood ready for it, and it was a team effort. Needless to say, we 15 high maintenance performing arts camp girls survived our one night in the woods, and we were probably better off for it!
Our mantra throughout the night was “Don’t let the fire die!” Our one goal was to keep it going so that we could stay warm and cozy under the stars and so we could eat in the morning. “Don’t let the fire die!” we would say to one another. And it took all of us to keep it alive. On this day of Pentecost, I’d invite you…and challenge you…to adopt this campfire mantra: “Don’t let the fire die!” In our case, the fire is, of course, the fire of the Holy Spirit. It’s hard to believe that it has been 50 days since we celebrated Easter and it’s time to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, or as many like to call it, the “birthday of the church.” It is the day we remember when the disciples heard the sound of a rushing wind and tongues, as of fire, rested on each of them and they were filled with the Holy Spirit. They began to speak in different languages so that people from all over could understand in their own and hear the good news. The Holy Spirit was the inbreaking of the divine into human affairs, bringing all together in a new covenant…a new church.
Pentecost gets its name from the number 50 (Pente- 50th day), and it also has its roots in a Jewish festival called “Shavuot,” or the “Feast of Weeks,” celebrating the time when the Hebrew people received Torah on Mount Sinai. The Jewish faith celebrates Shavuot on the 50th day following Passover. It is a time to remember the covenant that God has made and to remember who they are as a people. So, too, as Christians, Pentecost is a time to remember what God has done for us through Jesus Christ and to remember who we are as a people and to celebrate that the Holy Spirit is among us to make us one, to guide us, and to sustain our very being. Pentecost is a time to remember that we are indeed alive, thanks to this Holy Spirit that is compared to a mighty wind or to tongues of fire. But Pentecost is also the time that we are challenged to keep the fire going.
(There was a great article recently on Huffington Post by a UCC pastor named Rev. Emily Heath. It was a letter from the “dying” church. Some of the following ideas are from this letter: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-emily-c-heath/a-letter-from-the-dying-c_b_5441228.html?ncid=fcbklnkushpmg00000051)
The church is dying. Have you heard that? Sometimes it seems as if it has been dying from the day of Pentecost…from the day of its birth, it has been dying. I read a quote the other day from an author, Janne Teller that says, “Everything begins only to end. The moment you were born you began to die. That’s how it is with everything.” Is this true of the church? We look around and see declining attendance in many of our churches, people don’t make church a priority anymore, it’s hard to get young people interested, people say the church is irrelevant or boring. The lists go on and on. But you know what? I think that the church would be surprised to hear that it’s dying. The church would be surprised to hear this not just from observers, but especially from the people who are a part of it. “The church is just another dying institution,” we often hear people say, or we might be guilty of saying it ourselves. But the church is more than just an institution- it is the body of Christ- the living and continuing presence in the world! And we as believers are members of that body, instructed to care for it and keep it alive.
So if we suppose, for the sake of argument, that the church, as the body of Christ, is dying, then it’s time to re-evaluate what we know of the body of Christ. What do we know of it? For one, we know that it has died before, but it has risen again. The body of Christ, then, is about resurrection. That’s the whole message of Easter. Death occurs, yes, but it does not win. The body itself dies, but comes back stronger. We, as the church and Easter people, should not fear death because we know that we worship a living God who has defeated it. Perhaps the church is not dying, but is just entering into a new phase of life- maybe a stronger and better one. Perhaps the church is not dying, but is changing. It’s important for us to know that there is a difference between death and change (Heath). I’ve heard people say that they would rather die than change, and that’s really scary.
If that’s the attitude of the church, then death is imminent. Just because church is no longer the way you remember it or exactly the way you like it does not mean that it is dying. Though it may be hard to hear, the church is not dependent upon your approval or comfort for its life. It is, however, dependent upon how we follow God’s leading in the ways in which it is evolving and changing to be the stronger body of Christ that we are called to be. It is dependent upon how we keep the fire going as a church. It is dependent upon how we follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit, even if it is leading us into the uncertain or unknown. It is dependent upon how much risk we are willing to take to keep the flames alive and how many people are willing to contribute to its well-being. It is dependent upon how passionate we are about making disciples of Jesus Christ.
The bottom line is that it is up to us to keep the body of Christ alive and well. It is up to us to not let the fire die, but to keep it alive and healthy so that its warmth and light will be known to all. When I was growing up, one of my favorite summer activities was catching fireflies in a jar. My sister and I would run around our backyard and catch them and watch them glow in our hands. Even in my teenage years I would stay up late just to watch them flicker in the trees. But over the past few years, I have noticed that there are less and less fireflies. At first I thought it was just because I wasn’t as interested in them anymore, but it turns out that there are actually less fireflies now because of the spread of artificial light, pollution, and urban sprawl that has done away with their habitat. Scientists now believe that fireflies have dwindled by as much as 70% in recent years due to these factors. The days of our children catching fireflies and enjoying their light may not be far from over.
But if we remember anything about our firefly catching days, we remember that fireflies glow with a light that is inside each of them, that continues to glow for a time even after they die. Fireflies are light bearers. So, we too, are light bearers as followers of Christ, who is the light of the world. We are given the Holy Spirit, like tongues of fire, on Pentecost and are filled with the Holy Spirit so that we may go forth to bear its light to the world. When the Spirit fills us, we, too radiate the light of God. Malcolm Muggeridge, an English author, once said after observing Mother Teresa care so compassionately for the sick and dying, that “God’s universal love has rubbed off on Mother Teresa, giving her features a noticeable luminosity, a shining quality.” As Christians and light bearers, we too are responsible for keeping our light alive and not letting it grow dim.
Like the fireflies, it is easy to get distracted by so many of the other lights in our world that seem to draw us in to the point where we no longer can tell in which direction we are going. Just as the fireflies are finding their inner lights being overpowered by bright and artificial lighting, “so, too, as Christians sometimes find the light of God within us- especially if we don’t tend it- growing dim” (Homiletics). So today, Pentecost, let’s find ways to tend our lights so they do not grow dim. Let’s find ways to keep the fire going.
(Heath) First, we keep the fire going by reading and studying scripture. The Bible is full of stories about people living in communities of faith learning how to “live, change, and grow together.” It’s full of stories about God leading people through the wilderness to the promised, and of people taking risks in order to fulfill what God has in store for them. We read the stories of Jesus who was always putting himself out there to cross boundaries in order to heal the sick and wounded. We need to be able to talk about those in the early church and how they overcame their struggles in order to discover who they are. We need scripture to remind us of God’s story and how it weaves through our story. If we don’t know our biblical stories, then we lose hope. It seems that too many Christians have given up on knowing the story of God and God’s people.
Second, we keep the fire going by taking risks as a church and not being afraid to rock the boat in order to stay afloat. We need to take a risk in the ways we choose to show Christ’s love- by opening our doors to anyone and everyone, by taking risks to grow and expand ministries, by each and every one of us getting involved in the mission of the church with the goal of making disciples of Jesus. We take risks by not being afraid of who we are and what we stand for as a church. If we get too comfortable, we will let the fire die and will have nowhere to go. We keep the fire alive and well by stepping outside of our comfort zones and pushing ourselves to be better and always moving forward.
Third, we keep the fire going by rejecting negativity. If we are trying to keep the fire going, negativity might as well be the water that wipes the whole thing out. Did you ever notice that negativity usually breeds more negativity? If you see this happening, put an end to it immediately. If we are going to say that the church and Christianity is all about hope and redemption and grace, we better be willing to live up to that. We don’t want to show anyone a church full of pettiness and negativity. No one is going to buy that. Instead, let’s keep the fire going by putting an end to negativity and practicing grace, patience, and hope instead.
And finally, we keep the fire going by recognizing grace and practicing gratitude in all we do and say, and by living for others and not ourselves. I often hear that we need more people to help the church survive, and this may be true to a point. But no one joins the church just so they are more numbers in a book or more in the bank account. People join the church to experience the love of God in a community of loving and caring persons. So instead of asking people to build up the church or keep it going, what if we asked ourselves how our church can build up others? What if our greatest priority wasn’t saving this church, but sharing this church with others and giving them the freedom and support to help change it? (Heath). And what if we lived like the church is still celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit? Because it is still here among us, waiting for us to kindle its flames and keep the fire going.
This is our church, our home, our hope, our community, our way that we experience God and enter into relationship with God and one another. This is where we come that our inner lights may be kindled and kept alive through the power of grace and the Holy Spirit. May we not let that fire die. May we help keep that fire alive and well in others. May we hear the challenge today to keep the fire of the Holy Spirit going that we may come together as one to love as Jesus loves, even though we may be speaking different languages, even though we come from many walks of life, we know that the Spirit is alive and well, bringing us together in the same language of love and grace. Christ comes as the Light of the world, sending the Holy Spirit as tongues of fire to light a flame within each of us to start a fire…
It is up to you. What happens next? Will you let it die? Or will you keep it going? Amen.