W. Gregory Pope, preaching
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Series: Practice Resurrection
In Anne Lamott’s novel, Crooked Little Heart, Elizabeth is a main character trying to rebuild her life after the tragic accidental death of her first husband Andrew. She is now remarried and raising her teenaged daughter Rosie. But she’s never honestly worked through her grief over Andrew’s death and has not fully invested in her new marriage to James. Nor has she re-invested in life itself. In the first year after Andrew’s death she compulsively slept around, trying to beat back the pain. Then she turned to alcohol to self-medicate the pain. And then depression took over.
Now near the end of the novel, she begins to come to life, to say her good-byes to the past so she can live in the present. Her best girlfriend is a woman named Rae, a new follower of Christ, and Rae gives Elizabeth some advice:
“I keep trying to do what Wendell Berry said,” Rae tells her.
“What did Wendell Berry say, Rae?”
He said, “Practice resurrection.”1
It’s not often that I hear a character in fiction refer to an author that I know and admire. And so, reading that scene was a nice surprise. “Practice Resurrection” in the context of congregational life has been our theme this Easter season. If you were present you may recall the Sunday of the Alliance gathering, when we prayed together Wendell’s Berry’s poem that included that great phrase:
On this Pentecost Sunday, the 50th day of Easter, we celebrate the outpouring of God’s Spirit upon the disciples 2000 years ago. We also anticipate a renewed outpouring of God’s Spirit upon us today. God gifts the church with the Spirit of the Risen Christ, empowering us to practice resurrection in a world desperate for new life.
When the Spirit came upon those early disciples,
the images they used to describe their experience are provocative ones:
a mighty wind blows among them and rearranges everything,
foreign tongues come upon them, allowing them to speak in languages they did not know,
so that others who spoke those languages could hear the good news.
And then there is the image of fire.
From that image I want us to consider this morning what
the 21st century Irish philosopher-theologian-pastor Peter Rollins calls “pyro-theology.”2
He was lead to form that word
after hearing the exclamation of
the 20th century Spanish anarchist Buenaventura who said:
The only church that illuminates is a burning one.
The only church that illuminates is a burning one.
Buenaventura was so angry at the injustice of the church of his day,
he was ready to be rid of them all.
Jesus said, “I’ve come to cast fire on the world, and how I wish that it may blaze.”
I would like for us to hear Jesus and Buenaventura’s words in a couple of ways.
Though Buenaventura most likely meant the literal burning down of churches,
the biblical image of fire is not so much a destructive one as it is a purifying one,
burning away all that is false and all that does not really matter.
So let’s look at this in a couple of ways.
The first, as Peter Rollins speaks of what he calls “pyro-theology.”
He says that church, faith, belief can sometimes be just a security blanket,
shielding us from the horror of doubt and disbelief that lies deep within us all.
He says many of us believe what we believe because someone else told us it was true.
And then when we can no longer believe those things,
we say we still believe them,
or try to convince ourselves we believe them,
either because we think we are supposed to in order to be Christians,
or we don’t want to be embarrassed by saying our beliefs make no sense.
And everybody continues to participate in a game nobody believes in.
By making Christianity all about beliefs,
we protect ourselves from the experience of Christ in Gethsemane and on the cross.
Christ in Gethsemane and on the cross gives up everything - even God:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Pyro-theology, says Rollins, does not build or construct; it burns things down.
It burns away all idols and safe belief systems and false gospels.
It burns the box we put God in.
So Rollins says, we should figuratively and psychologically,
set fire to our beliefs and our churches,
then walk inside and see what remains in the rubble.
And there you will find the Crucified One
and identify with the poor of the world who have nothing,
and be left with the only thing that matters.
That leads to a second way I want us to hear Buenaventura’s claim that
“the only church that illuminates is a burning one”
along Jesus’ claim that he had come to bring fire to the earth.
I think it is a call to pray that this fire of Pentecost,
this life-breath of the Holy Spirit,
may set our hearts aflame,
and that we would brightly shine like a light on a hill,
illuminating Crescent Hill and Louisville
with the fire of God’s love.
An Illinois pastor once commissioned an artist in his church
to provide a painting inspired by this Acts 2 story of Pentecost.
The artist delivered a 6-by-3-foot canvas.
Scattered around the canvas
were 12 human heads with tongues of flame perched on top of each head,
each frozen in the act of speech.
The pastor says,
“What immediately captures the eye is the figure at the center of the painting,
who is looking directly out of the canvas at the viewer.
His index finger points at the viewer,
very much like Uncle Sam in old U. S. Army recruitment posters.
The painting seeks to tell us that the miracle of Pentecost is re-created in every Sunday assembly. That whatever may have happened to those first disciples has been handed off to us,
in order to bring new life to the world.”3
In 1989, Billy Joel released the #1 song, “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”
It many ways it was a defense of his generation
against the accusation that they were the cause of the world’s problems.
In that song he lists 56 people and events that had happened since he was born in 1949
that his generation was not responsible for.
The chorus goes:
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.4
Billy Joel uses the image of fire in a negative way.
I want us to think of fire in the biblical, Pentecostal sense -
the light-giving fire of God’s Holy Spirit in the world,
and acknowledge that we too didn’t start the fire,
it’s been always burning since the world’s been turning,
ever since the blazing phoenix Spirit of God
moved across the void of creation and brought forth life.
It’s the same Spirit that filled the womb of Mary and brought forth Jesus.
It’s the Spirit that entered the tomb of Jesus and brought him forth in resurrection life.
It’s the Spirit that invaded the prayer room of a gathering of Jesus’ followers
and led them to practice resurrection.
The whole book of Acts could actually be subtitled “Practicing Resurrection,”
as the brand new church discovered what it meant to live in the power of the Risen Christ.
The Holy Spirit comes and people begin to speak and hear each other as never before.
A new community is born and people share in common all their resources;
no one is in need.
The gospel begins to change all kinds of lives
- Jew, Gentile, male and female, Samaritan and African -
even the life of the leader of the Pharisee’s Death Squad and Inquisition, Saul of Tarsus.
He meets the Risen Lord,
becomes Paul, apostle to the Gentiles,
and says, “It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
A rich woman converts to Christ and gives her home to be the new house church in Philippi.
A slave girl is set free from her demons and her profiteering masters.
Apostles defy Roman and religious authorities, saying,
“We must obey God, not human authority.”
People give up pagan magic and superstition and believe in the gospel.
All social and economic and racial barriers are being broken down
as the gospel creates new communities throughout the Roman Empire.
And throughout the history of Christian faith, people have been practicing resurrection.
There was Monica, a fourth century convert to Christ living in North Africa,
who gave birth to the great theologian St. Augustine.
There was Francis of Assisi,
who left his family and his wealth to become a friend of the poor and a friend of Jesus,
beginning a movement that continues today known as the Franciscans.
There was Joan of Arc,
who heard voices and would not recant her testimony even in the flames.
And Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church,
naming the reforms he believed the Church must make in order to be faithful.
“Here I stand,” he said, “I can do no other.”
There were two baptizers named Smyth and Helwys.
And a methodical Anglican named John Wesley,
who with his brother Charles,
gifted the church with hymns and enlightenment for the Christian faith.
There were Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams,
two of those first Baptists who fought so hard
for religious freedom and the freedom of conscience.
And John Newton,
who renounced slave trading and wrote Amazing Grace.
And Sojourner Truth,
a black woman who became a gospel preacher and a freedom fighter.
And Adoniram Judson,
American Baptist missionary to Burma.
And thousands of others, many of whom you have known personally,
whose very lives practiced resurrection.
Like Wendell Berry who, in his poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,”
calls us all to wake up and rise from our slumber. He says:
So friends, every day do something
That won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it . . .
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though have considered all the facts . . .
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head in her lap . . .
Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Are you willing to have resurrection happen to you?
A desert monk wanted resurrection, a new life.
So he went to his desert father, his abba, and said,
“I’ve followed all the commandments but I’m not yet where I want to be. What can I do?”
The abba said, “You could become flame.”
Easter people, rise up and set your world ablaze! Light your world!
And “if the threat of dire predictions cause us to withdraw in pain, O God,
may your blazing phoenix Spirit resurrect the church again.”6 Amen.
1. Anne Lamott, Crooked Little Heart, Pantheon, 1997, 287
2. I heard Peter Rollins talk about this in the summer of 2009 at a “Poets, Prophets, and Preachers” conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
3. Jim Honig, Christian Century, May 31, 2011, 19
4. Billy Joel, “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Storm Front LP, 1989
5. Wendell Berry, The Mad Farmer Poems, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front,” Counterpoint Press, 2008, 12-13
6. From the hymn “In the Midst of New Dimensions,” by Julian Rush, 1985 in The New Century Hymnal