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Sermon: The Power of Love and of Fire

A Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on May 27, 2018.
1st Sunday after Pentecost/Trinity Sunday, Year B (RCL): Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

Come Christian Triune God who lives, shake the world again. Amen.

First, Immanuel, let me say how great it is to be back with you today. It was very nice of both Randy and Rachel to ask me to come serve while they and others are at Shrine Mont.  [Take a selfie.]  Thank you.

It’s been an interesting week, hasn’t it? What, with the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, lighting the world on fire by preaching so fully and passionately at the Royal Wedding!  I didn’t get the chance to preach last Sunday for Pentecost, so please grant me a little latitude to play with that now.  No, that doesn’t mean I’m preaching two sermons tho’!

++Michael offered his sermon titled “The Power of Love,” speaking about the Love of God known to us through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. His sermon was mostly all about love, but he also touched on diversity, politics, human rights, the power of change, the power of devotion, and, most certainly, the power of love.  “There's power in love!  Don't underestimate it!  Don't even over-sentimentalize it!  There's power, power in love!”

I was totally mesmerized by and delighted with the passion Curry exhibited. He was waking them up in St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle, and I believe, based on the buzz through social media, he had engaged the whole world.  I mean, “THEY WAS WOKE!”  He had caught fire, and he knew exactly how to wield that fire.  As he ended his sermon, Bishop Curry spoke of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French Jesuit, Roman Catholic priest, scientist, scholar, and mystic who spoke eloquently of the various inventions or advancements made possible by the discovery of fire.  Curry remembered de Chardin said, “that if humanity ever harnesses the energy of fire again, if humanity ever captures the energy of love - it will be the second time in history that we have discovered fire.”

This past Thursday, Chrissie and I welcomed friends from Hawaii as national news showed us images of nature’s fire and fury in the form of lava, ash, steam and gas spewing from a corner of their island home. Since May 3rd, the Kilauea [Key-lu-way-a] volcano has been breaking apart at its base in the southeastern corner of the Big Island.  You’ve probably seen the dramatic photos and videos of erupting fissures, walls of creeping molten lava, “lava bombs,” and dangerous gasses.  Thousands of Hawaii residents have been displaced and more than 80 homes and other buildings have been destroyed.  Our visitors assure us they are safe living on the opposite side of the island from all of paradise’s pyrotechnics.  I called this activity, “angry earth;” my friend Brian, however, tells me that Hawaiians have a different perspective because of their great respect for Pele, the honored female deity of fire.  What we as mainlanders may think of as disruption and destruction, they view as “old things being made new.”  I’ll give you a moment to think about that.

Now I invite you to consider how the power of love and the awesome renewing work of fire through molten earth both act as transformative works in our world here and now.

Today is Trinity Sunday. It is the one Sunday where we specifically remember the Holy Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  The main difference between this Sunday and others throughout the church year is that today we focus on the “being” of God rather than the “doings” of God: we pause to look at who God is rather than what God has done.  Usually, our lectionary includes narratives that tell stories, maybe about history, myths, or parables.  But on Trinity Sunday, we move from the “sacred story” to the mystery of the Sacred and Holy itself.  All the readings today talk about that being of God.

In our Old Testament lesson, we have Isaiah’s vision of the Lord surrounded by angels. They sing “Holy, holy, holy,” a song that the church still sings at the beginning of the Great Thanksgiving of each Eucharist.  This liturgical text invites us and all of creation to sing praises of God’s glory, the glory which is God’s mercy toward sinners.

In his letter to the Romans, describing the new life of faith, St. Paul refers to all three persons of the Trinity: The Spirit which leads us to recognize that we are all children of God the Father, and sisters and brothers with Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

And in the fourth Gospel from John, Jesus’ miracles prompt Nicodemus to visit him in secrecy in the dark of night. Jesus tells this Jewish leader, a member of the Sanhedrin, about being born of the Spirit and about the Son who has been sent by God to save.

Being “born from above” is a contemporary translation of what earlier English Bibles rendered as being “born again.” Ancient Christian tradition interpreted this birth imagery as relating to baptism.  Only in recent centuries has another interpretation been introduced: that of a personal experience of conversion into active participation in the faith community.  John, the fourth evangelist, uses this metaphor of birth to lead into perhaps the world’s most famous sentence about God’s actions through Christ to love and save the world ~ John 3:16. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."  It’s so well known it has bumper stickers and signs at football games that just say “John 3:16.”

Well, for almost six years now, I have met with other clergy on Thursdays for breakfast at Atlantis in Bradlee Shopping Center. The group of us all agree that there should be signs, bumper stickers, magnets, and T-shirts emblazoned with John 3:17. [STOP]  For this verse even more directly speaks to the core of the Gospel truth: "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.”

When we confess that God is the Triune God, we are saying something about who God is before, beyond, and after the universe: that there is community within God.  Our experience of this is reflected in Paul’s words today.  When we pray to God as Jesus prayed to his "Abba" (which was an everyday, intimate parental address), the Spirit prays within us, creating between us and God the same relationship that Jesus has with the One who sent him.

We may all be able to understand and accept God the Father as Creator and Jesus the Son as our Redeemer but laying claim also to the Holy Spirit as our Sustainer may require some more imagination. I think that God so loved the world that we also have God the Holy Spirit who can and does “dance” with each of us.

[In Immanuel Chapel, we even have visual aids designed by artist Brian Clarke featuring symbols that are central to our Episcopal faith: oak leaves for Creation, “the genesis for all that is”; the Parable of the Sower from Canterbury Cathedral which is abstract “as it is refracted by the light onto the ground of the Cathedral represents the power of the Incarnation mediated to us through Canterbury to the Episcopal Church in the United States”; and the Holy Spirit, "the dove, almost moving at high speed,” over the baptismal font on the west wing.]

Often, as I approach time to begin crafting a sermon, I invoke the Holy Spirit that lives, praying that she will come “dance with me,” to help me find inspiration for words and meaning that might open scripture for you and for me.

The Hebrew word for Spirit is RUACH [ROO-ACH], which translated means “the intimate breath of God,” and in the Greek it is PNEUMA [NOY-MAH], “the wind of God's Spirit.”  The One by whose creative breath every person becomes a living soul also shares the life-changing Spirit with all who will receive it.  Both definitions are things we can see or feel the effects of, but cannot control.  So, I suggest we DANCE with the Spirit in our lives.  Here is that power from above, that being of God, that liberates us and makes all things new.

This advocate, the Companion who moves along side with us, is also the Spirit of Truth, pointing to the truth about our life, about sin in this world, and about our need for a Savior. Our Triune God bears witness to us bringing God’s light and love in us and through us.  No one is given the Holy Spirit against their own will, but when we ask for and receive that Spirit, we are enabled to grow into the persons God first envisioned us to be.

Becoming the persons God intends us to be involves the sometimes ironic and painful process of letting go of ego and its needs, dying to self, to enter into a deeper relationship with the world, with other people, and ultimately with God. When it comes to using our gifts, we are called to practice and let the Spirit lead.

It may call us to be open to The Power of Love that we know from the Triune God ~ Father, Son, and Holy Spirit ~ through Christ Jesus, and to surrender to the Pentecostal movement of wind and flaming that might make something new out of something that is old. That process may burn like fire and feel destructive even as we are being made new.  For I assure you, God is not yet done with any of us! 

Bishop Curry, the first African-American presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, encouraged all who could hear and receive his message to discover the power of love to make of "this old world a new world." After Jesus’ ascension into heaven, Pentecost brought the promised Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to walk along side of the apostles then and us now, guiding and directing us, and guarding and protecting us.  The Holy Spirit we dance with is not a passive presence.  Maybe we can compare it to the Hawaiians’ understanding that their fire goddess, Pele, who "is very dynamic, sometimes very angry.  Quick to anger and quick to forgive.  But she’s a force to be reckoned with."  Like Pele, the Spirit is making all things new.

Powerful Love. Saving Grace.  Awesome Fire.  God is in all of that.  And there is the mystery of the Trinity, not to be solved, but certainly to be embraced.  No one is given the Holy Spirit against their own will, but when we ask for and receive the Spirit, we are enabled to grow into the persons God has always envisioned us to be. “There's power in love!  Don't underestimate it!  Don't even over-sentimentalize it!  There's power, … power in love!”   

In the name of our Christian Triune God who lives: Father, Son, and Holy
Spirit. AMEN.