Fans of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire” have long been frustrated at the slow pace at which the author writes the as-yet-unfinished work, the first volume published more than a quarter century ago, never mind that the HBO television adaptation, “A Game of Thrones,” has long run out of published material.
While it is unusual that a film or television series gets ahead of the original printed work, it is not at all unusual that there are more films or television seasons than there are books. The worst offender is Peter Jackson, the New Zealander who turned the dense three-volume “Lord of the Rings” into three long films, then turned the slim “Hobbit” into three films that were almost as long, just under eight hours. Measured by word count and minutes, it took Jackson five times as long to tell the story in “The Hobbit.”
The modern pioneer in over-extending a film series was really the Harry Potter franchise: seven books became eight films. Like Tolkien’s literary series, J.K. Rowling’s is the story of an unlikely hero, a battle between good and evil. To be specific, the Potter series is about an orphan and a battle against systemic racism, the organized hatred “he who shall not be named” and his minions have for Muggles, those who are not magical, and anyone who has Muggle blood.
A book series has to start somewhere, so we might say that the dramatic events in Rowling’s Harry Potter series begin when Vernon Dursley notices a cat reading a map. But as the story unfolds, you realize that the events in the novels, the mundane, the hilarious, the tragic, are just the latest events, that Harry had always had the power he needed, magic and sacrificial love. That the struggle between love and hate was nothing new. Harry just needed to learn the story, to recognize and master the gifts he already had. Magical power had already spilt out into the mundane, there just were no words for it. This day’s story is the beautiful collision of what has been and what might be.
Today’s scripture story is not fire and ice, like Game of Thrones, but fire and Spirit. So many think of Pentecost, that dramatic, chaotic scene, people speaking in foreign tongues, cacophony and chaos, as the birth of the church, as the sudden arrival of the co-eternal Third Person in our inexplicable Trinity. In fact, this “new thing” narrative fits in well with supersessionism, the discredited and toxic idea that God abandoned the unfaithful Jews and transferred covenant to Christians, that Christianity supersedes or replaces Judaism, a way of thinking that has contributed to centuries of antisemitism, pogroms and the Holocaust.
A way of thinking that is completely wrong.
I don’t know what I believe happened that day, nor am I really clear about the Trinity. Every explanation I’ve ever heard is nonsense, and I’m supposed to preach about that nonsense next Sunday. Martin Luther, Protestant Reformer and , in truth, a raging antisemite, did suggest that preachers should not preach on Trinity Sunday, because nothing they said could equal the task at hand.
My lack of clarity, the unformed nature of my Trinitarianism, doesn’t mean that I don’t believe that Jesus is God-with-us, or that the Holy Spirit is the power of God with us in the world today. It doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in the ultimate, in the reason there is something instead of nothing. I very much believe. But I don’t believe the Spirit was locked away in a storage unit from Creation until Pentecost, off stage in a divine play. And much to the surprise of most Christians, neither does the Bible.
The Spirit is constantly present in the Hebrew scriptures. We see it in today’s final reading, from the Torah. “Two men had remained in the camp, one named Eldad and the second named Medad, and the spirit rested on them. They were among those registered, but they hadn’t gone out to the tent, so they prophesied in the camp.”
The Spirit in Hebrew scripture is sometimes feminine, sometimes sophia, or wisdom. She doesn’t fit neatly into the Trinitarian formula that would eventually be hammered out by bishops in councils, a formula influenced by Hellenism, human logic, and a human hubris that declared that God must stay within the bounds of our language. Nor does the Spirit really fit well with patriarchy, Hebrew, Hellenistic or Roman. But she is there, in the evolving story of the Hebrew people, in the evolving story of the followers of Jesus.
God’s presence, being for creatures, being with creatures, being in creatures, does not begin with Pentecost, nor does it end with the Enlightenment.
And the Enlightenment matters.
Humans, in face of mystery, had always used stories to explain, to teach, to structure. Human knowledge reached a tipping point in the late Renaissance. We suddenly became confident in our ability to figure things out, to know the rules, even of life itself. If it couldn’t be tested through the scientific method, it wasn’t real. We turned these massive brains of ours to the task of understanding and controlling everything we could.
Anything that was not controlled, including excess of emotion, irrational behavior, and the Holy Spirit, became downright embarrassing, just as the work of the Spirit had become a point of contention, an embarrassment, to the consolidating control of institutional church centuries earlier, for the Spirit does not submit to human rule. One of the earliest heresies suppressed by institutional Christianity was Montanism, a second century movement that claimed authority through the Spirit.
Who says the Divine doesn’t have a sense of humor. Our growing scientific knowledge has led us right back to mystery. And most of us find the greatest meaning in things beyond reason, things like art and love.
Since the Protestant Reformation was forged in the fires of Enlightenment rationalism, the Spirit was demoted to the B-Team in our movement, discussed rarely, and only in the vaguest of terms. The Azuza Street Revival in 1906 would give birth to Pentecostalism, to a Spirit-filled form of Protestant, but mostly, we in the Mainline are the frozen chosen, cool, collected, controlled. We are too enlightened for fire, for tongues.
Fortunately for humankind, God has never played by our rules. Sure, we try to create God in our own image, but God is still God, Creator, not created. And the Spirit of God, divine mystery, serendipitous creativity, irrational exuberance, whatever you care to name this power for life and for love, this power for holiness, is not reasonable.
Like the power of love and the mystery of magic in the Harry Potter books, the power of the Spirit was always there in the encounter of Creator and created. It still is. You just need to learn how to see it and to use it. And by you, I don’t mean you, I mean us, because like everything else in scripture, covenant, holiness, Spirit, it is not a product of Western individualism. To borrow from sports, there is no “i” in “church.”
The lost source text shared by Matthew and Luke referred to the baptism that Jesus would bring as Spirit and Fire, powerful, never fully in our control.
Humans would not exist without fire. Cooking transforms food to make nutrients more readily available, and scientists have come to believe that this simple act was like rocket fuel for human evolution, allowing us to develop these huge brains, for as little as we sometimes seem to use them, they are very expensive biologically, consume huge amounts of energy, Corvettes in our craniums… We would not be ourselves if some ancient hominid hadn’t risked it all to play with fire.
Human-caused climate change may be making the wildfires in the American West worse, but it is only one cause. The reason the fires do so much damage, destroy so many homes, is because there are not enough small fires. Some of you know this, for some this may be new. Small wildfires constantly burn off what is dead, clear undergrowth, create space for new life. Fire is natural.
Our efforts to control fire, to control nature’s spirit, means that the dead and the dry builds up, that there is no space for what is new and vital. The more we try to control the fire, the deadlier the next fire becomes.
Sort of like church, actually.
We cling to what is dead and dry. Is there room for new life? Are we so worried about small fires that we set ourselves up for the inferno?
In an old wooden building like this, real fire is no laughing matter. But we could use some more spiritual fire. Like Elijah, we might need some cleansing fire to burn away our idols, the false gods that leave us trapped. We might need the gift of tongues to speak to the needs of families, of younger generations. We might need spiritual fuel to feed our hope.
Fourteenth century saint Catherine of Siena said “Se sarete quello che dovete essere, metterete fuoco in tutta Italia, non tanto costì.” The Spirit having not given us all the gift of understanding tongues at this particular moment, I will offer this contemporary translation: Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.
Like Harry’s magic, the Spirit has always been here, was speaking the divine into the world, at creation, during the Exodus, burning tongues of fire, proclaiming Christ in Jerusalem. It is even present in our rational controlling reform faith, present right here in this church. It is fire. It is life. Will you stop fighting it?
Like George Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, our story is as yet unfinished. May it end with a little less blood than the novels, but with an abundance of fire. We can certainly squeeze another movie or two out of our story. Come Holy Spirit. Bring us fire.