May 15, 2016
“Baptism by Fire”
This is the season of graduations. Caps and gowns are donned. Stages are crossed. Diplomas dispensed. This is a time of stepping out. It is a leaving behind time.
Now, hopefully the education has paid off and the graduates among us feel well prepared for whatever is coming next. Hopefully they are stepping out with great confidence and anticipation. And hopefully when we too are faced with transitions (for be assured they will come), we also will face them with confidence and competence.
But we know, that there will be times, when that is not the case. There will come times when we do not feel prepared at all to step into what is coming. There will come times when the challenges we face make us feel not competent but clueless, not ready but reluctant. There will be times when the changes that we face are ushered in not with pomp and circumstance but with a “baptism by fire.”
But before we go any further, let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen
I was newly graduated from college and had landed a job at the Pine Street Inn, Boston’s largest shelter for homeless men and women. My job was to work as a case manager on the men’s unit helping secure the benefits and opportunities that those seeking shelter would need to help them transition back to greater stability in their lives.
I will never forget my first day. As you may know, most shelters close for a time during the day and then reopen in the early afternoon. The drill is that about an hour or so before the doors of the shelter open, the men and women begin to gather in the yard outside the shelter lining up in preparation to come in. Women in one area and the men in another.
My first day on the job was in the early spring and it was particularly raw and wet. The yard outside the men’s unit was filling fast with people who frankly looked down right miserable. There were many grizzled faces with collars turned up against the cold.
Waiting for instruction as to what I was supposed to do, I stood there watching through the window from within the shelter as the men gathered out there in the yard. Then Jay Todd, my supervisor (who also happened to be a Maryknoll Priest,) came up alongside me. He asked me how I was doing and I asked him how I could be helpful. He took a moment and then said he wanted me to go out into the yard and to start getting to know the men that were gathered there.
I turned to him rather alarmed and I asked him for more clarity. What was I supposed to do out there? Was there an intake form I was to have them fill out? What there a protocol I was to follow? He looked at me and smiled and said “No, just go out there and build a little trust. Nothing can be done if it’s not built on trust.
And so with heart pounding, terrified of my own incompetence, knowing the great gulf not only in age but also in life experience that separated me from those who I was about to introduce myself to, I slowly walked out into the yard.
“Baptism by fire” it is called. Baptism by fire is the phrase we use to describe when the only way to prepare for a situation is actually to just jump right into it.
What have been your “baptism by fire” moments? When have you found yourself with heart pounding, there on the edge of your competence, quite uncertain how to manage what was before you? Have you ever felt like you just did not have the words, the skill, the “know how” to do what was being asked?
Was when they told you were ready to be discharged from the hospital and then handed you your newborn to take with you! Was it when you found yourself sitting on the bedside of a parent at the end of life? Was it when picking up the phone you learned of a senseless tragedy that claimed the life of a friend? Was it your first day in a new job? Or that day when you realized with terrifying conviction that you really needed to find a new job?
“Baptism by Fire.” I bet that is how the disciples felt. The resurrected Jesus had instructed them to return to the upper room and wait and so as our passage opens for today, they are there. They are gathered in the upper room and they are waiting. For what they are not sure. And I am sure that more than one heart was pounding and more than one mind was wondering what in the world they had gotten themselves into. What were they supposed to do now? And would they be able to do it?
They had seen how Jesus was able to step out of what was familiar and safe and step into those risky spaces that separated people one from another. They had seen how in doing so, he brought those that were lost back into community and how he had given hope, and new beginnings to so many.
But now Jesus is gone and it is their turn to do as he had done. That in itself must have been terrifying, but they also were full of the fear of the powers of empire that took Jesus from them and that could very well come for them. And they were full of uncertainty seeing the increasing distance between themselves as followers of Jesus and their fellow Jews.
And so with hearts pounding and heads a swirl with wondering and worry, they waited.
And then…. “from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”
We celebrate this moment in our liturgical year as Pentecost and ascribe to it the occasion of the birth of the church. But those gathered there in that upper room that day could not possibly have known all that this day would come to signify. All they knew was that in their willingness to be of service, in their courage to stand on the edge of their competence and say “yes!” , it was there that the Spirit so powerfully met them. And in doing so, not only where they personally changed – not only did their fear melt away, not only where they filled with a power and inspiration that was not of their own making, but also they were able to bridge the distance between themselves and their fellow Jews, as each heard them speaking in the native language of each. Not by their competence but by the power of the Holy Spirit.
I find this passage in Acts and the companion passage from the Gospel of John so comforting and encouraging. For both passages tell us that God requires not aptitude but assent, not capacity but willingness. It is in a ready and willing heart that the Spirit enters and in doing so, well then the distance that separates one to another collapses.
But there is more. The truly unnerving thing about that first Pentecost is not just that those gathered were filled by the Holy Spirit, but by being so filled they actually became something all-together new. They became the vessel, the incarnation so to speak of the word that had become flesh in Jesus. They became and were to grow into more and more — the hands and feet, the voice and heart of Jesus in the world — and in doing so they were to become Church.
I will never forget the words that the Rev. Matt Fitzgerald (who at that time served as the Senior Pastor of the Wellesley Hills Church) spoke during the service in which installed as the Pastor here of the Union Church in Waban. He said something that really set my heart pounding and palms sweating. He said something that set me trembling to my core. He said that if anyone wonders if God exists they should be able to answer a resounding “Yes!” by looking at the Church. “Wow” I thought when I heard him speak those words, “I truly am practicing on the knife edge of my competence here.” The idea that by looking at us as church, people ought to be able to attest to the reality of God, both terrified and thrilled me!
But that is exactly what Jesus asked of the disciples. He charged them to be witness to him. Another way the word “witness” is translated from the Greek is “to testify.” Jesus asked that the disciples through their word and deed, through their very lives proclaim him. That is what it means to be church.
Scary stuff right? Baptism by fire, right? For who are we to witness to God? Who are we that God would trust God’s self to us?
Now I cannot tell you exactly what happened that day when I walked out into the yard at the Pine Street Inn. I am not really sure I understand it fully myself even all these years later. But when I walked out into that yard, when I crossed that distance in years, and experience and physical space, I did not do so alone. I met something there in the space between my younger self and the men gathered there. Was it the Holy Spirit? Yes, I think it was. For I am sure that the space between us was filled by something other than my fears about my own incompetence.
The space between us was bridged by a power that enabled stories to be told and laughter to be share. The space between us was bridged by a power that enabled trust to be built. I thought I was just walking into the yard outside the Pine Street Inn that day, but who knew that I was in a very real way, actually walking into an experience of Church.
Today our two churches come together to proclaim and bear witness to what the Spirit did on that Pentecost so long ago and that continues to do whenever we gather with each other and with the stranger we have yet to call friend, standing on the edge of our competence and yet desiring the courage to say yes! For God asks not aptitude but assent, not capacity but willingness, not outcomes but faithfulness. All the Spirit asks is a ready and willing heart. Is your heart ready? Is your heart willing?
If ever there was a time of need for the church, this is it. The distance between one and another, whether on the scale of person or nation, is great. There is an increasingly vociferous call to fill the space between us with fear not trust, anger not laugher. Suspicions and derision, not mutual respect and openness. And looking out at the landscape of our time we may feel unprepared and incompetent at doing anything about it.
But let us take heart! This amazing story of Pentecost is our story. When our hearts are ready, when we open our hearts to the indwelling power of God that transcends our own incompetence, we discover that we do not face the challenges of our time alone. When we gather with assent and willingness, turning to each other and to our times with a ready heart — the Spirit of God will meet us in those risky space we are called to enter.
So let us step out of the fears of our own inadequacy and the fear mongering of our time. Let us step into the spaces that divide with the intent to build trust, trusting that as we do, we too may we come to realize ever more fully what it is to be Church. Let us live lives together that are animated and sustained by the Holy Spirit, where we discover that we are in fact not clueless but are competent, not reluctant but ready.
Animated by the Holy Spirit, let us bring those that are lost back into community and give hope to those who are despairing. Let us too, live into the Way of Jesus and be his witness in the world enabled to do so because we are filled up by the power of the Spirit that makes all things possible. So thanks be to that day so long ago. Thanks be to this day now. Thanks be to Church and most of all Thanks be to God!