If you know me well enough, you’ve already guessed where I’m headed — you’ve already guessed what verse caught my eye, the part about the fire, of course. “Our God comes and does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, and a mighty tempest all around him” (Psalm 50:3). Obviously I’m going to jump at the chance to talk about fire, this devouring fire.
There’s nothing like a campfire, flames of blues and reds and yellows, dancing and leaping, popping and crackling, devouring sticks and logs. There’s nothing like a blazing fire during the winter in a fireplace — the sounds and the smell, comforting and cozy.
There’s a passage from a thirteenth century theologian, Mechthild of Magdeburg, who wrote about God as fiery love, passionate fire, indwelling and enlivening us. Here are her words: “Lie down in the fire and see and taste the flowing Godhead in your being. Feel the Holy Spirit move in you, compelling you to love God, His fire, and His flowing in many different ways.”
For Mechthild, God is the fire of love, flowing through bodies, coursing through veins, swirling through our lives. “Lie down in the fire,” she says. God’s fire is the warmth of love, enveloping us. God’s fire is light, illuminating a path in the night — God’s fire as the safe and sure comfort of love, the solace of God’s warmth. “Feel the Holy Spirit move in you,” Mechthild wrote, “God’s fire flowing many different ways.”
Our lives together as a church is all about this divine fire, God’s presence as fire, giving light to see our lives, to see the world, to help us find our way — giving us light and warming us with love, the love of God, the warmth of fellowship, of friendship, of caring words and meals, flashes of divinity in our midst. “Taste and see,” Mechthild wrote, “taste and see the flowing Godhead in your being.”
What we do here, as a church, is to welcome God’s warmth and light, the fire of the Holy Spirit. I think that’s why we have these candles here — I’ve never asked why we have them, I just know that we light them when we start worship, and we blow them out afterwards. I’m sure there’s a book somewhere about why churches have candles. I haven’t read it. But I’m guessing we have fire at church as a material sign of invisible grace, symbols of the unseen warmth that we welcome into our lives, through worship, through our gathering, as we sit and stand, listen and talk, sing and eat — all the ways we invite God into our lives, the way we let God pass through us, through our gentleness and grace. Church is a way to spread that fire, among ourselves, right now, and with whomever we meet during our week.
There’s another aspect of God’s fire, about what happens to us when the fire of love gets a hold of us. God burns away all the stuff that blocks the flow of divine love in our lives. This blockage is what we call sin — the stuff in us and in our world that blocks the movement of God’s love, the circulation of God within and around us. For example, the sin of pride blocks us from vulnerable relationships, from the risk of a relationship, a relationship without posturing — pride blocks us from knowing God’s love in a friend. And jealousy blocks us from a life of gratitude, from recognizing the gifts we already have, ordinary gifts, extravagant gifts of life from the abundance of God’s provision. And greed blocks us from letting God’s love for the poor flow through us, through our bank accounts, through our hands as we share what God has shared with us. God’s fire is grace, the flames of grace that burn through our sin so that love can flow in us and through us.
Maybe a good image for this kind of fire is to think about your life as a forest of Ponderosa pines. I grew with them in Arizona. The pine trees are made to survive wildfires. Their trunk and bark are fire-resistant. In fact, a Ponderosa forest needs fire. The fire burns the pinecones and spreads the seeds hidden inside. Wildfires also create a layer of nutrient-rich soil for the seeds, fertilizer for the seedlings as they start to grow. God is like that kind of devouring wildfire, burning through our lives to enable new growth, new life.
I got this image, of God as fire roaring through a pine forest, from Lauren Winner’s new book, Wearing God. Here are her words: “If God is fire, we are a grove of ponderosa pines. Without the heat and burn of God’s flame, our pinecones would remain closed tight around the seeds that are needed for our thriving and growth and new life.”
There’s one more way I want to talk about God’s fire — that devouring fire we hear about in our Psalm for today. Here’s the verse again, “Our God comes and does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, and a mighty tempest all around him” (Psalm 50:3).
Sin is social — because it has everything to do with how we, as individuals, block ourselves from God’s flow of love in the world. Private jealousies and resentments and lusts have everything to do with how we think about one another and treat each other. And our hope is that God will burn away all of those blockages, all the stuff that gets in the way of being people who flow with divine love, people who let our lives circulate God’s gentleness and grace.
This week I want God’s fire to devour a particular social sin, the sin of anti-Muslim violence in our community, as we witnessed with the murder of Deah, Yusor, Razan, just a few miles from where we are right now. And there was the mosque and education center in Houston that was set ablaze a few days ago, the work of arsonists.
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I want God’s fire to devour this social sin, the sin of religious racism, of violent resentment — a sin that infects minds, convincing people that some lives are less human than others, that some are cheaper than others, a sin that corrupted the mind of our neighbor, here in Chapel Hill, the sin that convinced him to shoot three people because of a disagreement about parking. I want God to come with devouring fire, to burn away these powers of sin, social sins that distort minds, sins that refuse God’s love, sins that reject God’s gentleness and care, violence fueled by religious racism.
“Our God comes and does not keep silence,” the Psalmist writes, “before him is a devouring fire, and a mighty tempest all around him” (Psalm 50:3).
We hope for transfiguration — that God’s presence would settle upon us, upon our lives, our neighborhoods, and our world, just as the cloud of God’s glory descended upon Jesus in the story from Mark’s Gospel.
In the fourth-century, bishop Ambrose of Milan said that the life of Jesus was God’s fire on earth. In Jesus, he said, “Love was illuminated. Justice was resplendent.”
That’s our hope — that the love of Jesus would enflame our lives, that Christ’s justice would burn through our social sins, transforming us, transfiguring all things with God’s life.
As the apostle Paul wrote in our passage from 2 Corinthians, “For it is God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness.’” It is “the glory of God [that shines] in the face of Jesus Christ.”
And our prayer, our hope, our calling is that God’s glory may also shine in our faces — and not only ours, but in the faces of our neighbors, that all creation may shine with God’s glory, God’s love, God’s justice, and God’s peace.