There’s an awful lot of talk about “fire” in the Bible. Some use this to preach a message of “hellfire and damnation.” Others choose to ignore the passages of the Bible that refer to fire. But we should pray for the fire of the Holy Spirit.
“Signs of the Times”
Sermon by The Rev. Joe Gunby
Sunday, Aug. 21
Matthew 27:51-52 – At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.(NIV)
I have recently been drawn to the sanctuary building just as I was immediately after the fire. I find myself taking every opportunity to drive by and look. I have been reflecting on those feelings and in doing so was recalling the day that the steeple was brought down after the fire.
It was a clear and quiet day though I don’t remember the exact date. I left work so that I could be there and the work had begun before I arrived. There was a huge piece of equipment that you would think I could identify after serving on the building committee for two years. It was pulling on the structure and I learned the intent was to bring it down in a specific spot so as not to cause a dangerous collapse in other places. As they pulled on brick and wood the bell tower did not easily give up. It took quite a while and I was preparing myself for the crashing sound of brick, wood, and glass as it fell. What a surprise when in a quiet moment, the bell tower and steeple slowly and quietly tumbled over into just the spot that was intended. Smoke billowed up but I kid you not, there was barely a sound. Immediately after, I smelled the unique smell of our church. It was a smell that I remembered every time I entered the church just as our homes have their own smell. I mentioned it to Maxine and she started to smell it as well. It was a spiritual and reverent moment for both of us and the spirits of the cloud of witnesses were palpable in that moment. I was overcome by the memories of those people and even of ones I never knew who built that church, its physical self, its spiritual self, and its mission.
During my Lenten reflections, this day has reminded me of Jesus’ journey in his final days. Jesus did not want to be brought down and he could have riled up the crowds that were calling for his crucifixion, especially knowing that God was on his side. But he didn’t. He knew what His Father’s plan was for him and even though the human in him was deeply saddened and fearful, the God part of him knew that it was for the good of the world and that He would be welcomed into the arms of His Father. On that quiet day when he hung on a cross there was little noise but unlike our steeple, when Jesus died there was the equivalent of an earthquake. The spiritual bodies were brought up to heaven just as I felt the cloud of witnesses present as the steeple breathed its last breath.
Can a building have a life or be compared to Jesus? I am fully aware that the church is the people and it doesn’t matter where they are and have been reminded of that frequently by people since the fire. However, I also felt tangible souls and the presence of God on the day that steeple came down and I will never forget it. It bombarded every one of my senses and I cannot deny the holiness of that place to myself. It challenges me to consider worship as important as education, mission, and building committee. They are all equally important but I’m sorry to say that spending time in true worship of God often takes a back seat to the others and while I could easily rationalize that when I’m doing the other three I am worshipping, is that really giving God the time of praise, thanksgiving, and contemplation that I should? The day the steeple came down was true worship for me and obviously it has affected me in a way that will last forever. I believe that worship has that ability.
Prayer: I pray that I will seek worship as much as I do the other spiritual disciplines in my life and that as we move into our new sanctuary all my senses will be aware of the cloud of witnesses that surround us .
April 15 2013, It had been a long day driving to Atlanta and back twice over. The news was somber all day. Two bombs had gone off in the crowds for the Boston Marathon. Pain and Panic there. So finally back at home and already depressed I surfed the internet. A friend posted about smoke downtown from our Church. Quickly we chatted and he sent a link so I could listen directly to the radio traffic between fire, police and city management on the ground. There were two fire hoses on the fire, and the fire captain was attempting to start a third. But the water pressure was too low. He spoke with the utilities manager about increasing water pressure. He stated he could flood the lines with untreated water if the fire chief “declared a city emergency.” There was a long pause. The fire chief responded, “no, I can’t do that.” That long pause was likely him balancing the burden of citizens having to boil water for drinking vs the odds of saving the church. But the church was not going to be saved, no matter the water pressure. With his words “I can’t do that,” I knew it was a total loss.
My story is very likely similar to your story. That moment of loss leaves you feeling so empty. You find a slightly bitter taste in your mouth. You feel like you need to do something but you have no idea what it is. The following Sunday we worshiped at Young Harris. Lisa shared passages from Psalm 137 and Jeremiah 29 invoking imagery of the Jewish captivity and exile to Babylon. Presented with a choice between living out the misery of Psalm 137 or the hope of Jeremiah 29, we chose the later. Out of our hardship we would gather new strength growing individually and as a church.
The Imagery of the exile would spark my curiosity and I have spent many hours studying Isaiah, Ezra, and Deuteronomy finding many new insights. I hope I have established over the last few weeks how Ezra shows a divide opening between Samaria and Judah. With the same heritage they were children of the same God, but had become mortal enemies. Jesus broke through that barrier. Jesus chose a path laid out by Isaiah. He began his ministry with Isaiah’s words by proclaiming in Luke 4 – “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Deuteronomy spells out several groups barred from the community: certain foreigners, sexual minorities, and barren women. Isaiah asserts specifically that each of the groups has a place in God’s house. Jesus lived out that idea. Being in the minority I take comfort that Jesus appears to be much more attentive to Isaiah’s words than the words of Ezra.
April 15 was a painful day, but it opened up spiritual growth for me.It made each of us look closer at our church and what we mean to each other. The building is gone, but all the things that made it special are alive. The saints long gone are special because of the love they shared not the pew they sat in. The prayers are more important than the altar. The enthusiasm of the choir is what matters not the acoustics. Across generations we share the stories, find relevant meaning from them, comfort each other, and challenge each other. I don’t know about you, but I know I am more alive than ever thanks to April 15, and thanks be to God.