We Didn’t Start the Fire…

The genius of St. Billy of the Joel’s tongue-twisting classic “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is how he recounts 20th Century history in percussive prose punctuated by a catchy interlude at breakneck speed. In an instant we all wanted to memorize the lyrics and, though we all got tripped up at “Panmunjom” early on, the smart rhymes (he made “Bridge on the River Kwai” and “children of thalidomide” work!) made it all stick like Velcro on the brain.

We didn’t start the fire…but we could tell the story

Which, Beloved, is exactly what this Sunday’s Gospel reading is all about for those of us who are left behind these centuries later: we know the story.

We know the story, but we too often change it to suit our particular proclivities…which is what happens with stories. None are incorruptible. Like misheard lyrics to a favorite song, God’s story has been shaped and reshaped by people in ways that have been less than helpful.

It happens.

The way that stories move and shift over time are one of the ways they continue to live and breathe, for better or for worse. When it came to “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” I for a long time thought he said “Bacon, Reagan, Palestine…” instead of “Begin, Reagan, Palestine.” A line that was a recounting of geo-politics was, in my brain, a line about pork products and politics.

A little shift changes everything, right?

There are many responses to this propensity to have stories shift and move over time. Some would contend that the fact that a story is corruptible means it can’t be trusted at all…which is bogus on the face of it, Beloved. After all, even your own memories have shifted in your plastic brain over time. It doesn’t mean you can’t trust your memories, it simply means you have to be honest about the limitations there.

Another response is kind of like a huge universal shrug. Who knows what can be trusted, so why bother?

But there is another response which, I think, needs some focus, especially on this coming Sunday where we recount the birth of the church.

You see, yes the church has sometimes lost the lede when it comes to the Jesus story. That’s undeniable, OK? We’ve made fences where feedboxes should be. We’ve kicked sheep out of the fold because they didn’t fit the flock we had in mind. We’ve turned Jesus from a prophet into an idol in so many ways, it’s difficult sometimes to get back to that wandering Galilean when his alabaster-white likeness is stuck on pedestals around the world.

When the church is at its best, it is honest about its limitations…especially it’s propensity to shape something into its own preferred image.

But there is something that the church has historically said, and can get back to if it musters the courage: God is love. And if God is love, then Jesus is the love letter, and the flame-heads who appear in this week’s Acts reading, then, are those who are charged with reading and re-reading the love letter for a world pining to be in love with something that lasts.

And, see, if we can get back to that…well…that’s hopeful. A little shift changes everything, and sometimes for the better.

St. Billy’s chorus is an earworm:

We didn’t start the fire. It was always burning since the world’s been turning.
We didn’t start the fire. No we didn’t light it but we tried to fight it.

I mean, when it comes to the Pentecost event, we see there that we didn’t start the fire…we know this.

But instead of fighting the idea that God is love and the Christ is the love letter…which so much of the Christian church has done, by the way, as it holds hands with civic religion and “bathroom bills” and further marginalizes the margins…it needs to re-embrace the idea that God is in love with the margins.

Is in love with humanity.

Is in love with the world with such an intensity that the only appropriate symbol is, well, a raging fire that will stop at nothing to catch everything up in that love.

I’ve Been Hanging Around This Town for Way Too Long…

-art by Miwa Robbins, “Ascension”

This Sunday the mindful preacher always has a dilemma: do you preach on the Feast of the Ascension (a festival that always lands on a Thursday but can be transposed to this Sunday), or do you preach on the John text (John 17:6-19) which is a convoluted philosophical discourse that is about as clear as a morning on the coast of Maine?

What to do, what to do…

Well, preacher, you could do either, I think, because the message of both days pulls at a golden thread running through these last days of Easter: you gotta do this together, church.

You gotta do this together, because the Divine isn’t sticking around in the same way anymore.

if there’s one thing we know about God, Beloved, it’s that God cannot be pegged down. God cannot be nailed down.

It’s one of the reasons that Jesus left the scene in the first place in the Ascension.  He wasn’t going to accompany his disciples in his resurrected form forever, or else the quest would always be one to find Jesus. 

Instead he left, promising that they’d never have to look for him again, that he’d always be with them, and so instead of looking for Jesus, the disciples could do what they’re actually meant to do: look after their neighbor.  Love one another.  Embody Jesus, as they and Jesus are one…

Jesus left the scene so that, just as the woman touched the hem of his garment to stop her bleeding, there is a possibility that every hem is the hem of God imbued with Divine grace and love.  Jesus left the scene so that, just as the mud was spread on Bartimeaus’ eyes to give him sight, we might see all the earth as having the potential to give us insight into the Divine mind.

Jesus left the scene, Beloved, so that we wouldn’t just follow him around anymore, but could actually embody him for a world that is still bleeding, still suffering from lack of sight and insight, still tormented by the demons of racism and sexism and all the isms, still run by the powerful who prey on the weak, and still intent on trying to nail God down so that they can control God.

God is more mysterious than we can ever imagine, which is good news for us, because it means that there is nothing but possibility when it comes to the wild, mysterious, tongue-twisting God we have.  Possibility that, even if we can’t figure out how, life can come from death, hope will triumph over cynicism, and love will rule the day. 

A God who can’t be nailed down is full of surprises, Beloved.

I mean, remember what happened the last time they tried to nail God down?

It didn’t work then, either.

I Won’t Have to Miss You…

This Sunday’s reading from John’s Gospel (15:9-17) is all about love.

It drips of love.

It reeks of love.

But, it’s a little confusing on the face of it because John’s philosophical style mixed with this esoteric notion of love that is both human but also super Divine is, well, hard to describe.

I mean, how do you describe something that literally defies explanation? Divine love (and by that I mean love that is Divine and also the love given by the Divine) is as comforting as a hug and as wispy as a fog.

On a recent NPR podcast where they went back and did a retrospective of the last 50 years of the station, they gave a brief clip of an interview with author and illustrator Maurice Sendak at the publishing of his latest (and, it would turn out to be, last) book.

The interview started with heartfelt pleasantries as Sendak, who had been on the program before, expressed his admiration and, indeed, love for the interviewer. He noted that they were both up in years, though he admitted he was much farther along than her in that department, and then he said that he saw this as a good thing because he “wouldn’t have to miss (her).”

I was listening to this podcast as I was on my daily run, and this caused me to stop for a second.

Stop, and put my hands on my knees, and as sweat dripped from my brow (it was in the 80’s today here in Carolina), a tear mixed with it because that, by God, embodies what it means to love.

To love is to both have your heart open enough to miss someone when they’re gone, and to be grateful enough that you might pass first so that you don’t have to feel that pain of missing them.

Love means loving enough to miss someone, and to have a small sliver of gratitude that they might outlive you so that you never have to know that hurt yourself because it would be unbearable.

That sound selfish, I know, but sometimes there is pain you just can’t imagine and you pray you never have to realize.

That’s not selfish. That’s human. That’s being in love.

When put in the context of the Jesus story, of self-sacrifice, Divine love means loving something to death…and one step beyond.

To love our neighbor, then, means to love them enough to miss them when they’re absent…which is why it matters who is at the table.

Conversely, you also trust they miss you when you’re gone…

That kind of love takes a lot of vulnerability and a lot of trust. It takes a lot of willpower and heart-power.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: our notions of love in this life are often underwhelming.

We say we love everything from babies to burritos…and we can’t mean the same thing when we say that, right? Greek with it’s four-pronged definition of love does a bit of a better job at narrowing love’s definition, but ultimately we just have to be honest and note that love is something we try to wrap our minds around, but just really can’t.

Instead, well, maybe instead we should just wrap our lives around it…and be grateful for a love that has the possibility of stinging just a little bit on both sides of the relationship equation depending on how things work out.