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Doing Good by the Spirit

Have you ever heard of the Arrowhead Hotshots?

Group photo of firefighters in front of mountain skyline

Arrowhead Hotshot Crew 2014

The National Park Service established this Interagency Hotshot Crew program in May of 1981; one of three crews formed at that time. These three crews were the first non-Forest Service Hotshot crews established. They were also the first Hotshot Crews to be funded by the Department of the Interior.

Their job is to put out fires.

The Arrowhead Hotshots are busy right now and expect to be throughout the summer.

It is fire season, and this crew is not likely to get much sleep. These men and women have no life, except fighting fire. This is what their Web site says about the duties of an Arrowhead Hotshot:

Hotshot crews are expected to accept the most difficult and hazardous tasks. A typical shift is 16 hours and working for 32 hours without relief often occurs. Firefighters often endure hot, smoky, dirty, dusty working conditions with little sleep and poor food. Sleep deprivation is the norm and working with sharp tools, in the dark, on a steep hillside, under hazardous conditions is a common occurrence. Hotshots are frequently required to work for days at a time with only the 40 pounds of equipment carried in a fire pack. The work performed is physically demanding and emotionally taxing. Together for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for 6 months, the crew eats, works, travels, and rests as a unit. Under these conditions, compatibility, camaraderie, understanding, and crew pride are an absolute necessity.

I suggest to you this morning that is the kind of Pentecost commitment the Holy Spirit brings to and asks from the church: compatibility, camaraderie, understanding, and crew pride.

As the Arrowhead Hotshots work, they function with two basic truisms in mind:

  • Forests are good.
  • Wildfires are bad.

That’s the unforgettable message of Smokey the Bear and Bambi, popular characters who have branded our brains with the idea that wildfires are the enemy of the forest. For over a century, we’ve battled these blazes with everything we’ve got, and our firefighters have grown to 30,000 strong. But our efforts haven’t paid off in ways we expected.

In fact, many experts say our efforts to control wildfires have actually made the forest fire situation far worse.

We need the Arrowhead Hotshots, but the forest hasn’t always had an adversarial relationship with fire. For a long time, fire was really quite friendly, just as the Holy Spirit fire of Pentecost is friendly, if we understand it.

Before humans intervened, scattered ground fires — naturally ignited by lightning — cleared forest floors of accumulating leaves, branches and needles every five to 25 years. These ecological friendly fires swiftly swept across the forest floor, leaving large trees intact with room to grow.

For more than a hundred years we have interrupted an organic cycle we didn’t even know existed, and are only now beginning to understand.

Scientists suspect certain plants have evolved by using naturally occurring burns to their advantage.
Through our firefighting we may have inadvertently impeded the propagation, natural balance and growth of wild vegetation.

One thing I learned from older farmers in Idaho and Oregon is that some burning is good for the plant and good for the soil.

Some burning, some adversity, might be good for us, too.

If only we could periodically burn away the weeds choking our goodness; if only we could periodically torch the harmful indulgences in the undergrowth of our hearts, then perhaps we might we be better followers of Jesus.

Followers of Jesus are gathered together, a dove emerges from flames above them.

Luis Tristán (Toledo, 1585 – 1624), Pentecostes

Friendly fires create appropriate fertilizer, strengthen root systems and remove debris that thwarts vigorous growth: I cannot think of a better description of Pentecost.

The friendly fire of the Holy Spirit arrived on the day we call Pentecost day to send the fearful and cloistered followers of Jesus into the streets, breaking out of self-imposed and self-serving confinement to give birth to what we now call the church.

Flames like tongues of fire alighted on the heads of men and women, illuminating their minds with the first great gift of speaking languages they did not know so the good news could be understood by many; in fact by all gathered there, representing the known nations of the earth. The Holy Spirit instructed and sent those first followers of Jesus into the known world to spread the good news; to do good for all creation.

It burned away their fears, their self-centeredness, and their fear of change.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism knew from personal experience how the friendly fire of the Holy Spirit can burn away the undergrowth and debris of our lives, and allow new life to appear.
We can have our souls renewed, our hope enlivened and our worship services made powerful, if only we allow this cleansing fire of God to burn with us today, on this Pentecost Sunday 2015.

We need the Holy Spirit to be healthy Christians, and to be a healthy church — just like our lands and forests need friendly fire.

Consider this: deprived of fire, woodland landscapes from New York’s Adirondacks to Washington’s Olympic Peninsula have undergone dramatic changes: Once-grassy clearings are closed up with trees. Swamps are filled in with vegetation and have dried up. The open area under the tree canopy, known as the understory, is clogged with a thick mass of vegetation.

Our souls, too, may feel closed up, dried up and clogged. But it doesn’t have to stay that way, because God sends the Holy Spirit all the time, right here and now to unclog those unproductive and harmful places.

A friend of mine recently sent me a story that depicts how many of us live without allowing the Spirit to declutter our lives and refine us:

I have recently been diagnosed with the “But First Syndrome.” You know, it’s when I decide to do the laundry, I start down the hall and notice the newspaper on the table. okay, I’m going to do the laundry …

BUT FIRST I’m going to read the newspaper. Then, I notice the mail on the table. okay, I’ll just put the newspaper in the recycle stack …

BUT FIRST I’ll look through that pile of mail and see if there are any bills to be paid. Yes, now where’s the checkbook? Oops … there’s the empty glass from yesterday on the coffee table. I’m going to look for that checkbook …

BUT FIRST I need to put the glass in the sink. I head for the kitchen, look out the window, notice my poor flowers need a drink of water. I put the glass in the sink, and darn it, there’s the remote for the TV on the kitchen counter. What’s it doing here? I’ll just put it away …

BUT FIRST I need to water those plants. Head for door and …

Aaaagh!

Stepped on the cat. Cat needs to be fed. okay, I’ll put that remote away and water the plants …

BUT FIRST I need to feed the cat …

End of day: Laundry is not done, newspapers are still on the floor, glass is still in the sink, bills are unpaid, checkbook is still lost, and the cat ate the remote control.

And, when I try to figure out how come nothing got done all day, I’m baffled because … I KNOW I was BUSY ALL DAY!

—“I’ve been diagnosed,” Cited on Beliefnet.com, Retrieved December 11, 2002.

Wesley’s formula for receiving, responding, and inviting God’s Spirit to declutter our lives is three-fold: 1. Do no harm 2. Do Good. 3. Stay in love with God.

We talked about doing no harm last week: how did you do with that one this past week?

Did you make it through the last week without gossip? Without backbiting? Without drawing sides or blood over some inconsequential issue?

This morning let’s take a look at rule two: Do good.

In his journal from August 12, 1738 John Wesley writes:

“There is scarce any possible way of doing good, for which there is not daily occasion…Here are poor families to be relived: here are children to be educated: here are workhouses wherein both young and old gladly receive the word of exhortation: Here are the prisons, and therein a complication of human wants.”

Well, the circumstances and challenges facing us are different from Wesley’s time, but the rule remains the same.

To do good is a serious challenge from both Jesus and his follower John Wesley; but what does this mean today, and where are the boundaries?

This is not first-century Pentecost, nor is it 1738: what does doing good look like in the divided, wounded, and hostile world in which we live?

To begin with, doing good is not limited to those like me, or to those who like me.

This is one reason we are collecting health kits for Nepal (and by the way, we need new items…unused, like you would like to receive if you were such a victim).

Doing good is directed towards all persons, even those who do not fit into my category of “worthy.”

And like doing no harm, doing good is a proactive way of living.

It means I do not need to wait to be asked to do some good, or to provide needed help.

Just like Jesus taught and lived, doing good means that my life, and your life will be on the side of doing good to all people in every circumstance, and in every way I possibly can.

Cover of book, click here to order from Powells.com

But as the late Bishop Ruben Job pointed out, there are obstacles to this way of life, and at the top of the list is being in control.

We like to know where we are going, and what it will cost us to get there, but the Spirit does not work this way.

This is what Pentecost is about: the followers of Jesus were sent in unexpected and uncontrollable directions that day in order to do good for the whole world.

This is a challenging way to live, but it is a way Jesus appears to have taught and walked himself.

Our culture tells us that we and those in our inner circle are the most important persons in the world, so we must put ourselves first.

There are plenty of ad campaigns, movies, and television programs teaching you this every day.

Nevermind the needs of others, indulge yourself and those close to you first.

As Bishop Job remarked:

“So our culture has created a climate where corporate executives rob shareholders and plunge employees into poverty. A culture in which this world’s treasures are rapidly gravitating away from those who need a reasonable share of those treasures to survive. A culture in which anything goes as long as it is to my advantage-and I don’t get caught…We live in a culture that tends to be destructive to the very self worth and dignity of every child of God.”

Doing good never suggests that self-care is unimportant, but it is a slippery slope between healthy self-care and self-indulgence.

Jesus, and the Holy Spirit that is the gift of Pentecost reminds us that healthy self-care begins with acknowledging that every person is the object of God’s love.

Each of us is embraced in the unlimited and transforming love of God.

We do not need to control everything and everyone; we can trust in the Spirit and live in faith, allowing God’s Spirit to burn away the encumbrances that prevent us from doing genuine good to self and others.

Wesley’s first two rules are essential for transforming ourselves and our world, but these alone cannot fix much of what ails us and keeps us from genuine growth.

The clarity we seek and the faithfulness we long for cannot be manufactured on our own either as individuals or as a faith community.

Only life lived in the healing, loving, redeeming, and reforming power of the Spirit will provide the guidance and change we so desperately need.

That is why we will talk about Wesley’s third simple rule, “Stay in love with God” next week.

In the meantime, I pray we will all remember and embrace these first two as we enter into this new week together:

1. Do no harm: no gossip, no backbiting, no making the enemy of people “not like us.”
2. Do good: to all persons in all ways possible.

Pentecost is a Holy Presence; and this gift, is a cleansing fire that changes lives.

May we not allow fear of change to stop us.

It doesn’t stop the Arrowhead Hotshots.

It need not stop the Holy Spirit either.

I invite you to take a risk to jump into a new and dangerous faith.

To get unsettled.

To feel the fire.

To let it burn and consume all the unhealthy clogging of your lives.

This little adversity, this little challenge is good and healthy for every soul. Take the leap. Open your heart. Let the fire of God burn.

Amen. And Amen.!


Originally delivered May 24, 2015 by Rev. David Weekley at St. Nicholas United Methodist Church.

Sources:

  • Job, Ruben. “Three Simple Rules” Abingdon Press 2007
  • Carsten, Linda. “Fire wars on NOVA.” Discover. May 7, 2002, Discover.com.

Image credit: Pentecostes by Luis Tristán [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons