A Sermon at Burning Flipside on Pentecost Sunday, 2015, “Why Does God Want a Church at This Time and in This Place?”

The "Charis" by Doug Harrison. Photo by Ryan Hayes
The “Charis” by Doug Harrison. Photo by Ryan Hayes

This year, for the first time that I am aware of, we held church at Burning Flipside.   Fr. Eric, an Episcopal priest,  presided and I preached the sermon.  To put it most simply, we had church because that is what we do.  After 11 years of missing church on Memorial Day weekend, it just seemed it was time.  Pyropolis is our home for one weekend a year and we wanted to be our full selves while we are there. I am grateful to everyone who showed up for church at Flipside since noon is still considered an early hour.  I had to wonder who had not been to bed yet, and were simply stopping by church on their way to home to crash.   There were about 18-20 of us there all together.   We met at the effigy and blessed it to serve its good purpose of being art and enlightening the people. Then we made our way to a little spot behind the RedCamp dome where we sat near a huge pile of soggy carpets, mud caked galoshes and unclaimed tutus. What appears below is not the actual sermon I preached but a post based on the notes from my sermon.  At Burn-events we value immediacy, living in the moment and not trying to reproduce or capture it.   What is printed here is something written for you, in this place and this moment.  

*The Bible readings I refer to are usually read aloud throughout the service.  You can find them here or in links throughout as I mention them.  

It just so happens that it is Pentecost Sunday today.  This only seems to fall on the weekend of Burning Flipside once every couple of years.  It is an interesting challenge to try to preach from the Pentecost readings at Flipside. There is all this stuff about Sin, Judgment and of course, every burner’s favorite topic, organized religion.  Piece of cake.  The sermon writes itself, no?

RedCamp Entrance 2015

On the other hand it seems strangely fitting.  The traditional color for pentecost is Red, and we have plenty of that here in RedCamp, the symbol is a flame or fire, which is kinda what we do,  and it is the celebration of the birth of the Church and we  are here gathering for the first time ever as a church here in Pyropolis.  Keep reading through the sections on visions and morning drunkenness and you’d think they were talking about some of us sitting right here.

I would have loved it if I had been given some simple, huggable passage about how we should love everyone and be nicer to small animals, but these stories, today’s stories, are the stories we have stacked up against each other for good reason. So stick with me and I plan to face Pentecost with you and we can have at least start a longer conversation about why God wants a  Church …A.K.A. the elephant in the dome.

ezekiel_s_valley_of_the_dry_bones_by_ufrugger-d5tc7n3Lets begin with Ezekiel.  It is one of my favorite passages in the Bible and it is the inspiration behind the ankle-bone’s-connencted-to-the-foot-bone song.  I love the story because it is such a powerful admonition to hope.  In this vision God tells Ezekiel to preach to skeletons, bones, graves.  What a waste of time.  Am I right?  Not sleepy people or lazy folks.  Dead ones.  Long dead.  Dry bones with nothing left on them.  Who wouldn’t want that audience? Y’all may be hungover but at least you have muscle on your bones and organs and stuff.

Nevertheless God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones. Ezekiel does speak to them and they come together and breath comes to them form the corners of the Earth and they stand on their feet.

No one gets to tell the spirit where the Spirit can’t Go.

No one, none of us, gets to declare something or someone hopeless, which God means to bring to life.  That is up to God alone.  So perhaps it isn’t strange at all to be having Church at Flispide.  I for one will not tell God not to go there.  And in fact everything we are and have here is created.   Everything is God’s.

We read this in the beautiful passage from the Psalms. It reminds us that all the earth is the Lord’s –  every part of it.   Yes!  That’s the stuff we love to read about Bible!  We love to hear that God is everywhere and everything is God’s.  This is big stuff, universal stuff and wouldn’t it be great if we could always remember this and live like this is the case?  This kind of talk almost makes religion seem unnecessary, doesn’t it?.  Why do we need any particular notion of God if God is the universal, the everything?

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The Altar with elements, in the midst of the service.

Its right then that we come across our story from Acts.   Here we have a moment in which God is acting in a particular time and in a particular place and in a very particular way with a very specific group of people, namely, his disciples.

It has not been too long since Jesus had been crucified, resurrected and quite then ascended into heaven.  Here in the upper room is this wide range of people gathered together trying to figure out what to do next.  Now I say they are a particular people but in fact when we read it we see all the unpronounceable names of places form which they came it makes it quite clear that the only thing they have in common is that they have followed Jesus.  These are not all folks who speak the same language let alone come from the same neighborhood.

It is as if their diversity and the wide spread news of Jesus across multiple cultures and languages is key to this story.  It is.  The only thing that holds this group of people together is not their gender, their language, their privilege or economic status.  The room is full of one kind of people: disciples.   That is all they have in common.

acts-2And when the Spirit of God moves among them their differences are transcended even further. They each understand each other as if in their own language.    In this story we don’t have people set aside from each other for the sake of competition or power, but called together to become reconciled.  The sign of the Spirit is unity.

And this is even in Peter’s preaching as he reminds everyone that old men, young men, male, female, slave and free are all participants in these days of fruition.   Its hard in this amount of time to even scratch the surface of how scandalous Peter’s word were.  Could he have said much more to upset the social order.  Such people shouldn’t really be associating let alone building a kingdom and a life together.

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The altar and censer.

So here even though the Spirit is moving in a particular place, the sign of the Spirit is still a transcendence that reconciles things rather than divides them… The chosen one’s in this story are at the service of the most needy – the poor, the blind, the imprisoned.

This big idea of love is generic and malleable.  We can make of it what we will, and we usually make it seem very much like our own selves.   True love is hard and full of actual people and bodies and faults that are sometimes very much unlike us, and other times, terrifyingly similar.

…There is something safe, something facile and easy by saying everything is love, isn’t there?  We appeal to the lowest common denominators so it can be easy to call people to love, but then it quickly becomes incredibly difficult to know what that would mean to love when to beloved brothers want to kill each other, or when there is only enough food or medicine for half of our children or when our heart, born of fear and taught to be afraid make a habit of lying.

Love, real love, has teeth.   It also has flesh and bones and breath and it its actually quite specific, and anything but easy.   Those broad reaching, often vague, universal claims of love  only begin to come into focus when we access them through very particular examples of what love is and can be.   Love is no abstraction.  Love is made of bones and flesh and breath and people.  Love is made of people. In this case, it is made of people who follow Jesus and learn what it means to love from him.

images-4Jesus tells us this in John.    [Here is the part where I get to preach about sin and judgment.]   Jesus tells us people are eventually going to be quite wrong about things like sin and judgment because they wont know him well enough.   I think of the Westboro Baptist Church who I believe are quite sincere in the belief that God is full of hate.  I think that shows how little sincerety has to do with being Christian.   Samuel Johnson said that Hell is paved with good intentions.  Good intentions are not the same thing as love, or of truly knowing that everything is God’s.

So Jesus makes it clear to us that when the Spirit comes it will not be just a spiritual experience, warm fuzzies, or friendship bracelets.   The Spirit Jesus is sending will testify to Jesus and will move us to be more like him.

In this sense Christians are not given the option of being either religious or spiritual…. at the end of the day and in the life of the Spirit, we are disciples.  We are people who participate in and gather together to pattern our lives after the life of Jesus.

I realize I am kinda preaching to two audiences here this morning.  So let me see if I can break this down…

To those of you who consider yourselves disciples whatever may be said of our spirituality, our religion our faith, it must always be in the service of making us more like Christ.   Being fulfilled, spiritually enlightened, wise and insightful are all good things, but they only make sense to us if we grown in our ability to love others in the way that God has loved us in the person of Jesus.

It is not enough for us to stand at a distance and tell people that God loves them.  We can never remain in positions of comfort and proclaim, “I am here to tell you God loves you.”  if we don’t love in concrete ways, making it clear the nature of costs of true love..  We don’t start from those universal abstractions.  We always begin preaching the word of God with our lives. It was St. Francis who said, “Preach the Gospel, and if necessary, use words.”

You are surprised that there was Church at Flipside? WE are STILL surprised there was church at Flipside.
Surprised that there was Church at Burning  Flipside? So were we. 

The Spirit it here to help us be like Christ.  Let us not just tell people the abstract truth that God loves them. Look around you and get busy loving as best you can and as the Spirit makes possible, even and especially here at Flipside.   No one gets to tell the Spirit not to come here.  Be the particular site of the Spirit that makes sense of those broad general truths.   Be the evidence of love.

To those of you who are here and do not consider yourselves disciples, let me offer you a very specific word from God.  (Brace yourselves, I don’t talk like this very often) I am speaking on behalf of God. Now hear the Word of the Lord!

Doug loves you.

Yeah, that is it.  Doug loves you. I love you. I actually love you and not in just some esoteric or romantic sort of way. So does Eric! Fr. Eric loves you, as does Glenn and Gyesika.  I have been around awhile now and I hope that you can see that and believe that to be true, however imperfectly it is still executed. I love you as you are.


I had a few moments of crankiness in the dome this morning that proved I am a long ways off from being exactly like Jesus. My ways are not exactly like his ways.  I more to learn about what good judgment really is. But I can say with integrity that you mean much more to me than just a bunch of acquaintances and friends. You are so much more to me than people with whom I can kill time.  I have built a life with you now and I am called to be here and to do my best so that you know you are loved. I love you and I mean for you to know it.  We all do.

And if you are Atheist, that’s fine, I don’t believe you should have to believe in God to have experienced the love of God… that part is still my Job.  And if you have a different faith, that is fine, it is my job to love you.  That is part of what it means to be a Christian and part of why God wants there to be a Church.

Each local church, like us here today, is a small and particular iteration of Jesus, here to remind us all that the Earth is the Lord’s and that not only means that love is at our core, it helps us understand what love really us.

Love has teeth, and bones, and flesh, and a name, and a hand you can hold until you know in your being that God loves you…  and then eventually go on to hold someone else’s hand until they know the same.

No one get’s to tell the Spirit where the Spirit cannot go, …though I suspect there are Christians and plenty of non-Christians alike who would like to tell you the Spirit could not be here.. Not here among us now in this time and in this place.

I am here to let you know that God is with us now, and loves us here  …in this time and in this place.


Photo by Ryan Hayes
Photo by Ryan Hayes… I love you.