Can I just tell you how envious I am of the sermon title at the Presbyterian Church this week? “Watch Out! There’s Fire on Your Head!” I had a lot of trouble coming up with a title this week. I have to pick a title long before there is a sermon to go with it. There is only the text and the hymns and the prayers. The sermon develops over the week. I knew that I wanted to concentrate on Jesus’ audacious claim that his followers would do the same things that he did (he called them “works”), and even greater “works.” I want the sermon title to be inviting or enticing to passersby. If they are a little curious, they might think about coming in. But who would be enticed by a title like “More Work” or “Even Greater Work?” I like that “Fire on Your Head” title.
Fire on your head is the beginning of the experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit. It’s the excitement phase when we hear God’s call in a special way, or when we have our first experience of God’s presence, or we have an “aha” moment of spiritual clarity. I don’t want to try to define it too specifically because it’s such an ephemeral thing. For instance, candidates for ministry are required to share their call story many times throughout the ordination process. The stories are wildly different and some are so mundane as to make you think, “Seriously? That’s a call story?!” But you see in the sparkle in their eyes, and the glow on their face and you know that there is something more that cannot be described. It’s like a perfectly ordinary bush is burning, on fire, blazing and they see it.
That first experience is so ephemeral, so unique, that it’s even possible to miss it. I was pastor for a senior high camp many years ago at Ocean Park. Traditionally, there is a camp fire on the last night of camp in which teens are invited to express how their faith has grown during the week of camp. Camp is designed to be an immersive experience so emotions run high at that last camp fire. At that camp at Ocean Park, many of the teens brought tokens of their experience to place on the large wooden cross they had fashioned as their gift to the camp. There were many tears and hugs. But one young man sat at the back of the camp circle alone because he was bereft that he didn’t feel anything. He demanded, “Why don’t I feel anything special? I want to feel it like they all do!” It turns out he was a preacher’s kid. He was immersed in the faith all day every day. Sitting on that bench at the back of the camp fire, we talked about some of these kids jumping into the waters of faith for the first time, feeling the water surround them, splashing, diving, feeling the water. He was like a fish. The water was his home. It was all he knew. He would have to jump out of the water to feel something special—which may be why preacher’s kids often jump out of the water for a time.
You may be a person that knows exactly what it feels like to have fire on your head. Or you may be a person who has was brought up in the waters of faith and your experience of the Holy Spirit is no more exciting that your mother calling you to come in for dinner. What matters is what we do with it. That’s what my very boring sermon title is about—what Jesus calls “works” and the apostle Paul calls “fruit.” John Wesley, the father of the Methodist movement, taught that we can recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit by the fruit that a person bears. The apostle Paul lists some of the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Jesus said that even if we didn’t see God’s presence in him, we should be able to recognize God’s presence in the works that Jesus did. That’s how people recognize an apple tree. It has apples growing on it. People should be able to recognize God’s presence in us by our actions.
So here we are, a church with a newly minted welcoming statement. That’s fruit! The Beachcomber was kind enough to write an article about us in their most recent issue after we sent them a press release. It wasn’t completely accurate, but it was one way of telling our neighbors that they are welcome here. And then last Sunday we were given our first challenge to walk our talk when Angela worshiped with us. Our welcoming statement says that we welcome people with all faith histories and Angela comes from a tradition that worships and reads the Bible in much different ways. Actually, Angela represents several of the descriptors in our welcoming statement and she used the time in which we share the prayers of the people to read scripture to us that enforced a number of cultural norms for Jewish communities worshiping in the first century and that is used to prevent women from preaching or ordination. Angela heard on the street that she would be welcome here. So how do we make Angela feel welcome, even when she disagrees with much of what makes us who we are? How do we extend God’s grace to Angela and receive her gifts should she come back? It won’t be easy, but that is our task. We have to find a way. Remember that our God makes a way where there is no way and creates rivers in the desert. That’s what grows the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Those things wouldn’t even be necessary if we were all cut from the same cloth. But we’re not. We are part of the big, diverse, contentious, glorious body of Christ and we belong to each other because we belong to God.
When I bought my first house, I found grape vine starts on sale and planted grapes. I tended them so carefully and was disappointed the next spring when there were no grapes. That’s when a neighbor explained that grape vines don’t produce real fruit for five years. Five years?! Who has that kind of patience? Patience is a fruit of the Spirit—it takes time to grow. My next door neighbor had a good size peach tree that had a branch that hung over the fence between our houses. We enjoyed the peaches hanging in our yard the first year. That fall, our neighbor, who apparently resented our taking his peaches, trimmed that branch back so far that it had no chance of growing on our side of the fence. He trimmed that branch so far back that it killed the tree. I didn’t know that was possible. But a lack of generosity apparently kills real fruit.
There was an Italian prune tree in the back yard of our first parsonage. I have never seen a plum tree that was taller than a two story home, but this one was. It took up the whole of the back yard and it produced enough plums for all of our neighbors, all of our church members, everything we could make with plums, all the birds and the ground was still covered with fallen plums. It was the most prolific tree I have ever seen. It was full of humming birds. Its shade made our yard cool all summer. My dream is that this church will be like that plum tree. May our love be patient, may we be generous and kind, and may our self-control be expressed in gentleness and peace and joy so that we may bear fruit in abundance. May God’s Holy Spirit dance among us with power and grace.