Fire, Millennials, Church, Determination

Filled up with the Holy Spirit and God’s abundant love, we have been given the steady, strong, and secure Pentecost flame of determination.

Acts 2:1-21

Grace and peace to you from God our Parent and Creator, who fills us with the Holy Spirit through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

I am grateful for the opportunity to be with you today and in two weeks! I have been here once before, about two months ago for the ordination of my buddy Chris Hanley, which was also an occasion to have lots of red around.

It strikes me as an interesting coincidence that I get to preach today, because I think of Pentecost as a kind of birthday, a kind of beginning, of the early church. Pentecost means 50, and in Jewish tradition marked 50 days after the Passover – a week of weeks. But on this Pentecost Sunday, recorded in Acts, the apostles receive the Holy Spirit. In the text for last week, Ascencion Sunday, Jesus promises the disciples that they would receive the Holy Spirit – this Sunday, it happens.  

Since I just graduated from seminary and have been thinking about my own ordination…I am thinking about the birthday, the beginning, of my own ministry to word and sacrament in the church. I come to ordained ministry bringing all that I am, including the fact that I am a member of the millennial generation. Perhaps you have heard what it was said about millennials. They are precious snowflakes. They are used to getting trophies just for participating. They are used to having the world revolve solely around them and their agenda and they’ll never change. And yes, believe me have I heard this one, they are not in church.

And yet here I am in church. I cannot separate my identity as a member of the millennial generation, from my identity as a woman, from my current identity as a twentysomething woman, from my current identity as a candidate for ordination in this church. This reminds me that all of us are made up of many different characteristics that make us who we are. These include our gender identity. The color of our skin. The languages we speak and our ethnicities. Our sexual orientation. Our special skills, abilities, and gifts – athletic, musical, artistic; professional, physical, emotional.

I am in church today, with all of who I am, because, among other things, I believe in the Pentecost vision. I believe that sometimes, when all of us are together in one place, we feel full with a life-force, a fire, that we who identify as Christians call the Holy Spirit, a Spirit that is made known to us in the beautiful diversity of gifts of human expression and God’s creation, and that this fire is so powerful that there is nothing else we can do but to talk about it.

So when I think about Pentecost, I think about red, I think about diversity, and I think about fire. This Pentecost, I’ve actually been thinking a lot about fire.    

Fire can be explosive and deadly. This is not the fire I like talking about.

I don’t like talking about blood and fire and smoky mist, the sun turning to darkness, the moon turning to blood.

Kabul. Manchester. London. Chicago. It’s too real. As a chaplain intern at Mount Sinai Hospital on the west side of Chicago three years ago, I saw the blood. Blood of God’s beloved in Chicago, wounded or killed by violent acts, God’s beloved who are not statistics and headlines but people who have aunts and uncles and grandparents and fathers and mothers who weep. I’ve seen them weeping.

It’s real. And I don’t like talking about this fire, this violence and rage that consumes humankind. I’ve seen the effects. We’ve all seen the effects on the news every day.  

I don’t like talking about this fire, and I don’t like talking about certain kinds of warming, either. Global warming, climate change that causes oceans to warm and rise, destroying portions of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia whose beauty I got to see on a trip twenty years ago, news that makes my mother want to cry. Warming that intensifies storms, tornados and hurricanes and wildfires, increasing force, increasing destruction of crops, forests, coastlines, homes, lives.

I don’t like talking about it. But I have to talk about it. I have to talk about it because Jesus knows about the explosive, violent, deadly kind of fire. Jesus knows about the violence of greed and ugly rhetoric and inner pain that keep us from seeing how beautiful those who speak other languages of life are. Jesus knows about death. Jesus knows our suffering, our fear, our weeping.

And yet. Because we are known, and because we are loved, even amidst all of this – that is why, on the Day of Pentecost, the apostles receive a different kind of fire.  

It is a fire that comes to each one of them as they are gathered together, ordinary people, in an ordinary place, a house, which becomes a house of worship. It is a fire that fills this entire house of worship and each one of them with the Holy Spirit. One single flame, resting on each one of them, gives each one of them a different voice with which to speak a different language, yet a language that is somehow recognizable to someone else in the crowd. And though some laugh them off, we hear that the crowds are amazed. Astonished.

It is a fire that reminds me of a bonfire on beautiful Promontory Point park on beautiful Lake Michigan, a living water like the water Jesus near the LSTC and U of C neighborhood of Hyde Park where I currently live, fire which casts a glow on the faces of those who surround it as the beautiful Chicago sky darkens. It is a fire that reminds me of a single, small flame of a candle at a vigil. A single flame, yet one that burns all the more brightly as it joins together with dozens, hundreds, thousands in Englewood, or Orlando, or Charleston, or Manchester or in any other city or town across this country and around the world – like the candle flames that glow individually yet together on Christmas Eve as Christians welcome the birth of the vulnerable baby Jesus. It is the new fire of the Easter Vigil. It is a fire that is well-tended when we create time and space for sabbath, an idea which will guide your worship life together (at Gloria Dei) this summer, this beginning of the Pentecost season. It is the fire of determination.

As a member of the millennial generation, thinking about my ordination, I’ve been thinking recently about the years ahead that I will serve and live in this world, God’s world. Right now I feel as though I am living in a time when often the world feels overwhelmed and consumed by explosive, angry, ugly, violent, deadly fire. And sometimes others ask myself and my colleagues, particularly my millennial colleagues: How are you going to do it? Why are you going to do it? Are you going to be able to bring the young people, the young families back to church? The money is not there anymore. The church is getting smaller. The church is dying.

These are a lot of questions, concerns, feelings, which require many answers and discussions.  But there is one answer that I feel is certain no matter the discussion. Filled up with the Holy Spirit and God’s abundant love, we have been given the steady, strong, and secure Pentecost flame of determination. This Holy Spirit and fire come to ordinary people in an ordinary place. That’s when and where it comes to us too. We may feel the Holy Spirit filling us when we realize we have fallen in love. We may feel Holy Spirit filling us at important milestones throughout our lives – weddings, baptisms, even funerals – or we may be given a new fire in any moment – at a community meeting or rally or even in a small conversation where we feel a new understanding, a sense of belonging to a community. The Holy Spirit fills us, this fire burns for us as it did in the days of Pentecost, as it does in every day and age when we are re-learning and re-imagining again and again what it means to be Christ’s church, in buildings like this one and beyond, as we strive to follow Christ out in God’s world, striving to recognize in each other the beautiful, different languages that we speak, the prophecies we are hearing, the visions and dreams we are seeing and dreaming.

This Pentecost, this day, this time, may you be filled with the Holy Spirit and know the fire of determination for whatever it is you need right now, knowing that you are surrounded always by God’s love for all creation through Jesus Christ. Amen.

Anna Ernst
Gloria Dei Lutheran Church,
Northbrook, IL

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