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June 5, 2017

“God, Our Flame”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

Acts 2.1-19

Exodus 13.17-22

June 4, 2017

            At a conference I recently attended I heard author Barbara Brown Taylor tell about a priest trying to light a Paschal fire. Paschal, or Pascha, means Passover, and this is a candle that is lit on Easter, and then lit for the subsequent Sundays. Some churches light it during an Easter Vigil, which is when this priest was attempting to light it. Except, he was trying to light a larger Paschal fire outside, not a small candle. In order to light this fire, he needed the right materials – some wood, some sort of flammable liquid, and a match or a lighter. He was hunched down, trying to start it – he had been having difficulty. Though, what Barbara Brown Taylor said was that he was trying to “catch the fire.” If the conditions were just right, the fire would start. The priest wasn’t starting the fire, but catching the fire. She was referencing the Spirit, but also writing. I think this phrase is appropriate as we talk about God as fire. When the conditions are right, and we have the right tools, we catch the fire. As Billy Joel famously sings, “We didn’t start the fire,” but we are there to catch it. What will we do with it?

            For the past few weeks we have been exploring different metaphors for God. First we considered God as a Nursing Mother. The second week we thought of God as our clothing. Last week we imagined God as our nourishment, and today we finish with God as flame or fire. This sermon series was an idea that emerged after reading Lauren Winner’s book Wearing God. Each week I have had the pleasure of discussing these topics with the Sunday school class, which has been helpful in looking at the scripture passages in a new light.

            When the class began discussion on the Exodus passage, the idea of God as flame didn’t catch fire right away. We discussed the pillar of cloud rather than the flame. In this passage God is traveling with the Israelites through the wilderness. During the day God is a pillar of cloud, and at night God is a pillar of fire, leading them. What does this mean? As we thought through the implications of God as a cloud, I enjoyed hearing the personal stories the class shared about encountering clouds. Some hiked the Appalachian Trail, seeing a cloud come rolling up the mountain. The cloud seemed to be alive and blew right past. Another remembered flying for sport, zooming through the clouds and being lifted up by the small clouds. Yet another story told of driving through the Grand Tetons, rolling down the car window, and touching the clouds. All of these stories were enjoyable and heartwarming. They were associated with positive emotions. Clouds are described as illusions, not defined by shape or size, always changing, and ethereal.

            As I encouraged people to think more about stories including fire, emotions were mentioned but no specific stories. It was noted that one gains warmth from a fire in a fireplace. They were reminded of how fire heats and hardens ceramics and melts glass. Though, as I mentioned, the emotions were mentioned, but no specific stories brought the idea of fire to life. Clouds are perhaps more unusual and stick out in our minds more. Or maybe we take fire for granted. What once was an amazing resource to produce has now become so common because we don’t directly use fire anymore. We don’t usually use it to heat houses. We are far removed from the days of Little House on the Prairie and Downton Abbey, where fires heated the entire household.

            There are many stories in the Bible of God appearing as flame. We don’t mention it today, but God appears to Moses in a bush that was on fire, but never consumed. What we read today is an image of God as cloud and flame, always guiding the people both day and night. God never leaves. It appears they took the scenic route, because God takes them around the Philistines rather than through the town. God is present with them in the form of fire, which, in the apocrypha, is also wisdom. In Isaiah 4.3-6 God creates the cloud and fire as shelter and safety. They are safe from the rays of the sun and from the rain. God does not forsake God’s people, but goes with them.  

            Pentecost might be one of the most well-known verses to contain fire. The people in the Acts passage have gathered together in one place for a feast and all of the sudden a huge wind comes into the room. There are tongues of fire and they understand each other, even though they speak different languages. What are tongues of fire? Could it be referring to a flame? Is a flame like a tongue? There is some universality in this passage in that everyone could understand one another.

            Except, was everyone included? Women are not mentioned in this passage. This was the feast of the tabernacle, which was fifty days after Passover. The men have gathered – where are the women? Knowing that men and women had different tasks and responsibilities in that time, it is possible the women were preparing for the feast. Except, when the prophet Joel is mentioned, the prophecy includes men and women: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” Did the women experience the Spirit wherever they were? Did a huge wind rush through them as they prepared the meal? Could they understand each other in different languages?

            Flames have a variety of meanings. When trying to motivate, we talk about “lighting a fire under” someone. Perhaps God is lighting a fire under us. When we are too close to a flame, we don’t want to be burned, so we move – we jump up. Maybe God is doing the same. When we approach God, we can only be so close before we are encouraged to jump up and move. When speaking of justice, often someone talks about the fires of justice. When we sing “The Canticle of the Turning” we affirm “My heart shall sing of the day you bring, let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears for the dawn draws near and the world is about to turn.” The fires of justice are, presumably, a good thing. Then, there’s the candle we carry with us all the time. As children we sing “This Little Light of Mine.” We promise to carry that spark with us wherever we go, not letting anyone “poof” it out.

            How different these songs are from visions of destructive fires. Flames can be good, like the fires of justice, or flames can be bad, like a wildfire. This image of God as a fire has limitations. Fires are not always a good thing, and we wish to see God in a positive light. Though, perhaps we do not always understand what God is doing, and see it as a flame, burning down all that we know, when in fact it is something different. Japanese poet, Mizuta Masahide has a saying: “Barn’s burnt down – now I can see the moon.”[1]  We don’t want our barns to burn down, but sometimes when the unexpected happens, we see life in a new way. Sometimes God creates out of chaos. Sometimes God shows us the unexpected. God is like fire, but for transformation, rather than destruction.[2]

            Fire needs oxygen to continue crackling and burning. What if God’s breath keeps the fire going? What is the fire for you? Where has God lit a fire under you in your life? What will you do with that flame? The cartoon on the front of the bulletin is meant to make you laugh, but also to think about how you respond to that flame. With a joyful marshmallow on a stick? With fear? With mystery and intrigue?  I hope this sermon series has helped you to explore God in new ways, and perhaps you will come up with your own metaphors for God. I leave you with these words from a Sioux tribe: “This is the fire that will help the generations to come, if they use it in a sacred manner. But if they do not use it well, the fire will have the power to do them great harm.” We must have reverence for the fire that is God, and to wisely use the gifts we have been given. Thanks be to God. Amen.


[1] Winner, 212

[2] Ramshaw 168