“Red is Beautiful”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
November 15, 2015
University Baptist Church
Red is beautiful. It is the color of the Spirit. We wear red at Pentecost. We also wear red at ordinations. I’m going to wear this red stole that was given to me at my ordination to Deadra Moore’s ordination service this afternoon.
Jean Lubke always comes up with the greatest calls to worship, doesn’t she? Red sports cars really got me going this morning. Red, the color of valentine hearts. Red, the color of the egg in Chinese tradition, holding all of the hope of a newborn’s life. Red, the color of judgment at the hand of a teacher’s correcting pen.
Then there are the red cups at Starbucks. Have you ever heard of something so dumb? Apparently some Christian blogger is upset because it’s a plain red cup and doesn’t have any Christmas decorations on it. Somehow this is a war on Christmas. Well, I can think of a whole lot better candidates for a war on Christmas. How about the feeding frenzy that is Christmas shopping? How about the schlocky syrupy sweet aphorisms about Christmas? How about the glorification of warfare and the wrapping the flag around bombs? How about the fact that too many people cannot find decent housing and a decent job that pays a living wage, let alone a minimum wage—many of whom work in retail? How about the environmental degradation that is the result of our freeway parking lots? How about our lack of generosity? How about our mean-spiritedness? How about the fact that Starbucks is selling these red disposable cups? Imagine if we all just brought our own cup? Or better yet, how about if we paid for the person behind us in line, leaving the store before he or she would know. That would be a better way to celebrate Christmas. Red cups or not. But I digress.
Red is Beautiful. When Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai, his face shone—mainly because he has seen the fire of God. Fire is necessary to the lifecycle of trees and other plants, even though it can be destructive for the rest of us. Always in the aftermath of fire, we see things differently—perhaps with clearer eyes.
The red ire of rage is not so beautiful.
Red, the color of blood shed for freedom and bloodshed in urban massacres from Sandy Hook to Columbine to Red Lake to a Paris night club.
Red, the color of the devil. The color that makes us run. The color that makes us seek revenge. The color that has us drowning in its endless cycle.
We sing about it as we glorify Jesus’ crucifixion a thousand times.
E.G. White penned a tune that said, “Thy blood dear Jesus once was spilt to save our souls from sin and guilt. And sinners now may come to God and find salvation through thy blood and sail by faith upon that flood to endless day.”
Today’s scripture tells how the people were led by God through the wilderness. They fled captivity in Egypt (by passing through the Red Sea) but didn’t even have a star to guide them. They were instead led by a pillar of could by day and a pillar of fire by night.
Think about it. When the people were in the wilderness, having fled Pharaoh and his minions, they were in uncharted sand. None but Moses had been outside of Egypt, so we assume, since they were slaves. But now they were there in the wilderness, trying to figure out why they were there and constantly questioning whether it was really wise to do this in the first place. Many of us have taken steps away from the known and predictable. At first it feels great, like liberation, like freedom. And then reality sets in. “Was this a good idea? I mean, in Egypt we had food. We were slaves, but we had food. Are you sure we should go this way? Shouldn’t we stay and fight?” At last ten plague were enough. It’s time to start over. How many more plagues will we have to endure before we chart a new course?
Luckily the people were not left alone without a guide. They had Moses, Aaron and Miriam. But they needed something else. Human leaders are fickle. They can flip flop. They can outright lie to you. They can deceive you. They can betray you. They can worship idols and cause us to do the same. The idols can be oil, military might, money, xenophobia, political party platforms, revenge, even churches.
We must not make the mistake of confusing human leaders with God. We need to always keep God’s vision before us. We have the ability, each and every one of us to see God’s vision. God’s vision is metaphorically represented in today’s scripture as a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day. The closest thing to imagine this is a volcano, spewing sulphur by day and hot lava by night. But I like the idea of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.
No matter what else happens in our world, God is always leading us forward, if we pay close enough attention. No matter which candidate spouts the loudest or wins the most votes, we need to look for God’s pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. That vision that cuts through the despair and leads the people out of captivity into the Promised Land.
Sometimes a child can be a cloud of activity during the day and a blood curdling scream of fire by night. And parents are the bleary-eyed people wandering around in the wilderness for what feels like 40 years. It might be 40 months. Sometimes we just wish for 40 minutes of quiet and maybe 40 winks of sleep.
I told my daughters that if they did not be quiet while Kim and I were trying to sleep last night, that they would end up in the sermon. Pillars of fire.
I was going to preach about red trees and the fire of our souls, but then Paris happened. It’s not unlike what happened in Beirut a few days ago, or Baghdad a few days before that. It’s not unlike what happened in Sandy Hook. Or Garissa. It’s not unlike what happens in Uganda or other parts of the world. Red blood is spilled and the people mourn, looking for answers. All at the hands of people who are hell-bent on making a point and taking people with them in the carnage. The point that we all hopefully get from this is that violence is wrong. It does not solve anything. It makes us all worse. It appeals to our basest animalistic urges for revenge and it leaves us still hollow and tormented. We need that fiery pillar to lead us out of our dark nights of despair and lead us to the Promised Land.
The Christian disciples were demoralized and afraid when Jesus was strung up on the cross and executed. They were ready to cash it all in and go back to their normal lives. That’s when Mary Magdalene proclaimed the resurrection and said that they should go on into Galilee to find Jesus. When they went, they didn’t necessarily find the person Jesus, they found the work of Jesus. Jesus met them on the seashore and said, “if you love me feed my lambs and tend my sheep. If you really love me, then be on your way to the Promised Land.”
Last night’s Roots Cellar performer, Robin McGalliard Nelson decided to donate the $565 that we raised at her concert to help out Syrian refugees—a great and generous gesture befitting our troubled times.
The Promised Land is not necessarily a place. It’s a state of being. It’s a lifestyle choice. It’s a commitment to follow God in the ways of compassion, mercy, justice and love. When we make that lifestyle choice of not being conformed to this world, but being transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2), then we are on the way to the Promised Land. When we don’t do that, then perhaps we are being deceived. We need to always be true to the vision of God, which is best articulated by the morality of Jesus. Jesus never glorified bloodshed. He wept at people’s inhumanity and taught us how to be better.
The world thinks that bloodshed is the answer. If someone has drawn blood, then we need to draw blood too. But the message of Christianity is that there is something more powerful than bloodshed, more powerful than retribution, more powerful than war and terror. The Romans strung up Jesus on that bloody hill and thought that the movement was over. But bloodshed was not the final answer. Jesus rose, or maybe the people rose, or maybe when the sky darkened at Jesus’ death, the people saw the pillar of fire again and remembered. There was a turning that happened. That turning is what it is all about. How do we turn from this way of life to one that gives life and doesn’t take it away?
Jesus and Moses never said it would be easy. God knows it’s not. And yet, we are called to follow God into the unknown. Our spiritual journey, if it is to be led by God, needs markers along the way. For the people of Israel, it started out as a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day. It later became the tent of meeting and still later the Temple. In Jesus’ time, the Temple had become too much the focal point, so Jesus shifted the fulcrum into people’s hearts and minds. The vision of God needs to be in each of us. It’s our red life-blood. It’s what sets us free and points the way toward the future.
God promised to lead people as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night as they left their slavery and went on to the Promised Land. As we seek to live as God’s children on our journey of faith, we can see God just as clearly, love God just as dearly and follow just as nearly.
Oddly, the fiery pillar did not go out when our spiritual ancestors arrived in Canaan. It is still the image of our imaginations. It remains the pillar of fiery passion that rises above our petty squabbles and points us in a better direction. It’s a direction away from slavery, away from abuse, away from violence, away from fear. For if we follow one whom everyone can see—a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, then we can’t be led astray by the extremists who call for the spilling of more red blood.
Here are wise words from Peg Chemberlain from the Minnesota Council of Churches:
But what do I do now?
(A note to my Christian friends)
Bow your head, remember those who died, those who served, those in mourning.
Lift your head, take a deep breath, straighten your shoulders, show the world you will not be pushed into fear, you will live your life in courage.
Extend your hand, especially to your Muslims neighbors who mourn with you, and risk coming under the fear of the terrorists just like you do, but who also risk coming under the hatred of those who will blame them.
We need to be guided by something in this wilderness. It can be hatred or fear or vengeance or apathy. But I prefer to be led by the light of God, that red sky-fire that leads us away from bloodshed and slavery into a new territory where we can see each other clearly. It may take 40 years to get there, but I’d rather follow that beautiful red light than the ugly light of retribution and never-ending despair.
What do you find to inspire you in this wilderness?
Do you see the pillar of cloud by day, the pillar of fire by night?
It may be the Facebook profile picture with the French flag superimposed, a little red to remember those lost.
I see it in little Camille and her family, committed to living and loving in a way that makes her life safe, blessed and beautiful. That’s what we all want.
May the red passion that spills out of us today wash over us and help us find a way to overcome hatred, to see the world as a hurting place, to mourn, and to recommit ourselves to building a world worthy of God’s people. God still leads us. That red pillar of fire leads us out of slavery and into a new world. We have not arrived in the Promised Land yet. For peace is still far off. And God is still leading us as a benevolent light in the darkness.
God leads us through the wilderness. We need to reclaim the pillar of fire that reminds us of God’s leading to a new future. We need to follow that beautiful red pillar that does not go out nor succumbs to pessimism.
That red passionate fire emanating from the core of our very beings, connects with God and leads us to a new future.
The red pillar of fire that is God, and leads us to a new world, is beautiful. And so are God’s people.