July 4, 2010
Faith and Fireworks
Sparklers, Black Cats, Smoke Bombs, M-80s, Fountains, Roman Candles, Bottle Rockets, . . .
The aisles of Shelton Fireworks are full of all the things that make Fouth of July so fabulous - especially for those of us who have the hearts of teen age boys. And then there are the big guns - the huge mortars and gigantic bomb like things that pyrotechnic technicians set off in the night sky to help their unite audience members of every age and situation - families with kids smelling of bug spray, corraled on big blankets, teenage couples with their arms draped around each other, elders comfortably seated on folding lawn chairs with drink holders holding plastic cups of lemonade - every one united in the Oohs! and Aahs! that accompany the spectacular display.
Fireworks are fabulous. There is something just so soul satisfying about seeing the night sky lit up with all those beautiful and short lived lights.
Even Jesus would have liked fireworks, and I sight as evidence his statement to the 70 apostles that he sent out to tell the world about the nearness of the Kingdom: He describes their success with the expression - “I saw Satan fall from the heavens, like a bolt of light.” Doesn’t that sound like fireworks? It’s a phrase that expresses joy and triumph and heart stopping wonder.
And when I read it in our lectionary reading, I thought, wow! It’s like Jesus, as an observer of the missionaries he sent out, was seeing what we will see tonight - fireworks!
Only the fireworks he saw were not the result of gunpowder and carefully selected chemical reactions. The fireworks in this passage are found in the faith and faithfulness of the 70 men and women who went out, two by two, to tell the world about this Jesus whose love was lighting up their lives.
What does this passage tell us about faith on this day and night when fireworks fill the air? What do faith and fireworks have in common?
Well - fireworks always come with explicit instructions. So let’s start with the instructions that Jesus gave these earliest missionaries as they started out:
We can tell from Jesus’ words is that both faith and fireworks inherently contain a large element of risk. 13,000 fireworks victims keep hospitals busy every year. More than half of those injured are children. Fireworks not only injure users, but also 40 percent of fireworks mishaps injure bystanders. In 2004, fireworks started an estimated 1,600 structure fires and 600 vehicle fires which were reported to local fire departments. These fires resulted $21 million in direct property damage.
More than half (54%) of 2005 fireworks injuries were burns. Contusions and lacerations were second (29%), and were twice as common as burns when the injury was to any part of the head or face, including the eye. Hands or fingers were the part of the body injured in 30% of the incidents. In 24% of the cases, the eye was involved; other parts of the face or head accounted for 20% of the injuries.
One of the reasons fireworks injuries continue to occur is because people just don't consider how dangerous these devices can be.
Faith is evidently risky, too, Jesus said, “I send you out as lambs among wolves.” The world is not an easy place to live out our faith. Far easier to be faithful here, as we are gathered in this safe place.
What are the risks? The primary risk is that we are going to be sent out. “I want to live a faithful life, but what if God calls me to go somewhere I don’t want to go? Talk to someone I don’t want to talk to? Do something that might embarrass or inconvenience me? The words to the old country tune come into my head: “I want to get right with Jesus - but not right now”
Well - I love the certainty of this part of the Christian life - we can be sure that God WILL be sending us to places and people and situations that mean we have to take some risks. That’s why we can it faith. There are risks to living faithfully. Now, we are very blessed to live in a country in which the practicing our faith does not ordinarily mean that we risk imprisonment or death. There are still countries like that, and we should be praying for the Christians in those places. But here - usually - we don’t risk death. And Jesus didn’t seem to say his followers were risking death, either. The biggest negative outcome Jesus mentions is the same one we risk in living faithfully: The risk of rejection. The risk that people won’t welcome us, listen to us, speak kindly to us. The risk that we’ll get made fun of, or shouted at rudely, or flipped off. (There were rude gestures in Jesus’ day, too.) And Jesus say we can’t retaliate. He says we have to just shake the dust off our feet and go on. Both faith and fireworks entail real risks - that is part of the thrill of using them.
Fireworks depend on the right elements being put in close proximity to one another. Contact between the fuse, and the igniter, and the thruster and the are what make fireworks go. If you have any experience with fireworks, you know that if any of the connections between there segments gets jostled loose or is missing, the firework is a dud.
Likewise, we can tell from Jesus’ instructions to his 70 chosen ones that faithfully fulfilling his mission requires close proximity to the people to whom they are sent. Jesus asks those he sends to go out, not with a credit card in their pockets, a reservation at a moderately priced but very nice hotel, and a picnic basket full of goodies, in case the nearest Subway or McDonald’s is not near enough. Jesus sends the faithful out with the knowledge that they are going to have to get into people’s homes, belly up to their tables, and sleep in their beds or on their floors if they are going to get the job they are sent to do done.
Getting close to other people, figuratively as well as literally, is a stressful experience for many of us. There are sociological studies that show that people in general need a certain amount of “personal space” and people in the Midwest, especially the rural Midwest, need a little more of that personal space than average. We live in the wide open spaces and, in part, that may be because we aren’t particularly comfortable pressed up against, and dependant upon, other people. Jesus seems to know this. Because he puts quite a bit of effort into specifically instructing those he sends in the details that will inevitably result in their close proximity to the folks they are supposed to reach with the faith.
If we are going to live as these faithful ones did - we need to be aware that sometimes this is going to result in uncomfortable closeness to folks we don’t really know and wouldn’t, if it were up to us, choose as hosts, guests, dinner companions and friends. Sometimes these instructions can be read literally: I think of the plates of food and the glasses of drink that were set before me in Nicaragua. Sometimes, I had to think twice about where the food had come from, how it had been prepared, and whether it was going to taste anything like what I’d prefer eating. When the farm hand asked if I’d like coffee, and then poured some from his cup into mine . . . and when he asked if I’d like cream and went over and squirted some straight from the cow into the cup . . . Well, putting that cup to my lips and drinking meant something more than when I share a cup of coffee with you during coffee hour. I know that Jeri and Kirk will be facing some of the same sorts of situations in Malawi. Sharing someone else’s food, in someone else’s home, eating together takes on a kind of intimacy that is both uncomfortable and thrilling at the same time.
But you don’t have to go to Central America or Africa to find that faith’s proximity principle comes into play. You just have to visit someone in the hospital, or their home. Or share a ride with them to a ball game or a personal conversation with them on the street. Proximity is priceless. Not always comfortable, but absolutely necessary to sharing the faith.
What would happen tonight, when you spread out your blanket to watch fireworks, if, instead of situating it as far from others as possible, you actually plunked yourself down close enough to the next group that you could talk? Find out about them? Share snacks? Think about welcoming, rather than avoiding, contact with acquaintances and casual friends and strangers in the week ahead. How many more opportunities would there be to find out what God is up to in their lives? How many steps would that take you toward the place where you could share with them the faith that sustains you? Try it. Faith and fireworks depend on contact, on close proximity, on sharing space.
But you know what I think is the most important thing that fireworks and a faithful life have in common? The way they light things up. They way they fill the darkness with beauty and joy. The way they surprise us - stop our hearts a little - even if we are watching for them, they always burst into bloom with ever new patterns and colors and forms. The faith of members of this congregation never cease to shock and awe me.
The fireworks tonight will last a few minutes. The risk and the reward of faith in Jesus Christ last a lot longer than that. Amen.