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.
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.