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The Four Elements

Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, May 27

Pentecost Sunday
Acts 2: 1-4, 37-43

Hearing all that’s going on in our scripture and service today brings to mind one of my all time favorite R and B/Funk/Rock bands, the Chicago-based, horn-blasting, soul-moving and ever-wonderful Earth, Wind and Fire. There’s a line in one of their songs from 1975 called “That’s the Way of the World.” I’ve been thinking about it all week. It’s a far cry from a baptism or Pentecost hymn but it somehow fits today’s occasion, especially considering who sings it. The line is this: “Hearts of fire creates love desire! Take you high and higher to the world, you belong!” Don’t try to understand it too much; just hold the words and consider what we just witnessed – these young hearts of fire, gathered here, in love and belonging. Again… “hearts of fire creates love desire! Take you high and higher to the world, you belong.”

For those of you who are not as riveted by the high-pitched harmonies and head bopping beats of EWF, or in case you are just a more a visual learner, let’s say, allow me to call your attention to another creative endeavor that sets the same stage. Have you ever had a really good look at these Tiffany stained glass windows behind me? Some of you know that the installation is called the Four Elements, as in Earth, Wind, Fire and Water.

The four long panels were installed in 1895 as a bequest of Eben Norton Horsford. According to a newspaper article from the time, “over one hundred thousand separate pieces of glass and one half ton of lead and solder was used to hold the pieces in position.” I invite you all to come take a closer look after the service. They are stunning especially when seen up close. Each angel represents a different element. The order is actually earth, wind, water and fire! There are inscriptions on the banners they are holding – O ye Seas and floods, bless ye the Lord! O ye Fire and Heat, bless ye the Lord. All are quotes from Psalm 148 which we will sing at the end of the service today. As it is written in a book about our First Church stained glass windows, “the theme was an appropriate choice for Horsford, who was Harvard’s Rumford Professor of Natural Sciences. The idea of four elements had been incorporated into Christian thought from Greek Philosophy [and other sources]: fire and air represent the ethereal, earth, solidity; and water, a transitional force.” Indeed! And we see virtually all of these elemental forces at work on that Pentecost day described in our passages from Acts. The four elements are often used in scripture a symbol of the Holy Spirit. They also have a unique and almost magnetic power to draw us beyond ourselves and yet more deeply into an appreciation of awe and mystery and wonder. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “wonder is the beginning of all true religion”.

To understand this, just picture a time when your eyes are transfixed by the flame of a candle or a fire in fireplace. Imagine yourself leaning into the feel of a gentle breeze or sinking your toes into sand or the dirt in your garden. Imagine yourself knee deep in a river or an ocean. There’s that sense in moments like this? That very visceral sense that you are in relationship with something far greater than you. That this something that is magnetically drawing you into more meaningful reflection and into a deeper life that is really life.

So why all this talk of elements? Let’s turn to the text. Did you catch all the references? Suddenly, there is a rush of a violent wind, and tongues of flame, and all were amazed. They wondered aloud and in many languages not their own, what could this mean? Scripture, tradition and human experience come together here in a moment of divine manifestation, and that was very much the beginning of a new religion! Though it might surprise us, the Jews already celebrated a festival of Pentecost. It’s now called Shavuot, or the Feast of Weeks. Fifty days after Passover, seven weeks after their Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites camped out at the base of the Mt. Sinai when God’s presence was revealed, also through clouds of wind and fire, and when the Ten Commandments, and some would say the whole Torah, was given to Moses. Go ahead and imagine Charlton Heston for the visual, if it helps you out.

Baptism is also an ancient Jewish tradition, a ritual immersion that involved repentance or a turning from what one has been and done and a turning towards a life lived with and in God. But to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, as our scriptures make clear, was a new and different thing. Those 3000 baptisms that day marked the creation of a new community, and as such we often consider Pentecost as the birthday of the church. It was like a grand opening celebration for a new kind of community of faith. What’s more, as we’ll soon hear when we come to our Invitation to Offering, what immediately follows our passage is a description of how the early Christians would live in this new community, Spirit-led, sharing all things in common, selling possessions, distributing proceeds to all, breaking bread together and sharing God’s grace with generous hearts, day by day by day. It was an inspiring and conspiring and maybe even a perspiring day of wonder and reverence and awe, and it all began with the winds and flame surrounding the waters of baptism that converted human souls to deeper commitment and belonging to a community that was open to all.

Ultimately, the elements of nature -- rivers, fires, wind -- and our sometimes magnetic attraction to them, tell us something about who God is and what God’s love is like.
Wendell Berry captures some of this in his poem Like the Water:

Like the water
of a deep stream, love is always too much.
We did not make it.
Though we drink till we burst,

we cannot have it all,
or want it all.

In its abundance
it survives our thirst.
In the evening we come down to the shore
to drink our fill,
and sleep,

while it flows
through the regions of the dark.

It does not hold us,
except we keep
returning to its rich waters
We enter, willing to die,
into the commonwealth of its joy.

What an image for baptism and for that “transitional force” of water, and what an image for the proverbial intoxication of that first Pentecost day. We enter into the waters of our baptism, thirsty for a love, a community, a mystery and a spirit that is always too much! It’s always more than we fully comprehend or handle and yet we know we have need for it. And the best part…in its abundance, it survives our deepest thirst! God’s love is like that too, isn’t it? -- stronger than our fear, more abundant than our needs, more lasting than our relatively narrow lifespan, and bearing a truth about who we really are that can burn through our often too high or too low sense of self-esteem and self-image. And so we thirst.

What’s more, as we explained to the families when we were preparing for today, baptism is a dying of sorts – a drowning of our “old self” and a claiming or reclaiming of a new one. Today, and every time we come to these waters, we drink our fill. We remember our readiness for however many little deaths of transition we must endure. We remember that we are, in some sense, made to change and to die, and its only in that awareness that we can truly enter in, swim, float and be upheld in that commonwealth of joy, that pool of God’s grace, in that profound and recurring newness of life. For better and for worse, we always desire and thirst for more, and yet we are always and constantly being drenched by and in God’s love. As with Jesus in the River Jordan, the Spirit descends upon us too and calls us beloved, once and for always. You are my beloved child! Beneath all the images, that is the elemental truth that the Spirit brings to us on this and every baptismal occasion. You are loved! You are welcome! You belong in relationship and as part of something larger!

Have you ever, when you’ve heard the rain pouring outside or when standing by a river, remembered the gift of your baptism? Or have you ever, when peering into a fireplace or pit, remembered Pentecost, God’s gift of the Spirit to you and to the world? Have you ever felt that fire burning inside of you, giving you the courage of Peter to stand before 3000 and speak your peace, giving you the passion and inspiration to follow your purpose in life? Have you ever felt the wind or breath of the spirit, blowing where it will, entering into community, entering into a moment of quiet discernment, entering into your very lungs to offer you a peace that the world cannot give? It’s so often in these simple things, these everyday things that we daily see and feel and hear, it’s in these ordinary miracles, these elements of grace, that the Spirit meets us and touches us and opens us afresh to divine love and mystery.

The Uruguyuan writer and novelist, Eduardo Galeano, recounts the following story in his book of Latin American folklore entitled Walking Words:

Pilar and Daniel Weinberg’s son was baptized on the coast. The baptism taught him what was sacred.
They gave him a sea shell: “So you’ll learn to love the water.”
They opened a cage and let a bird go free: “So you’ll learn to love the air.”
They gave him a geranium “So you’ll learn to love the earth.”
And they gave him a little bottle sealed up tight: “Don’t ever, ever open it. So you’ll learn to love mystery.”

Sisters and brothers, all who are baptized by spirit, or perhaps by some other fire, and especially those young people who were baptized today, I invite you – Remember your baptism! Remember to love the water, air and earth and fire that’s all around us, these elements of God’s creation and symbols of God’s love and care. Remember the mystery they hold, the mysterious comfort they can give, the wonder and awe that calls us back where we belong, and that the calls us back to the beginning.

Maeve, Ian, Chloe, Samuel, Alex, Jake, Nellie, Julian and Melissa, dear hearts of fire, though only some of you will be able to recall the day, I invite you all especially -- remember your baptism! Remember it as a beginning of a wondrous life and journey into the depths of an elemental mystery, into a community that will forever accompany you in your faith, your questions and in your doubts. Most importantly, remember it as a beginning of a journey into an ever-increasing awareness that you too are God’s beloved and with you God is well pleased. Remember that, especially on a rainy day, or when life has burned you, when the earth falls out from under your feet, when the winds are turning you every which way. Remember that you are beloved, and that you belong, and all manner of thing will be well. Amen.

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