Fire-A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent

DSCN0340“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

On a sunny, gorgeous afternoon in June of 2011, my brothers, dad and I drove up a mountain road in Panama, through the exuberance of a tropical rainforest. We stopped at a particularly lush area, next to a river that runs wild and fast down towards the Pacific Ocean.  My mother had died two days before.   The day before, we had accompanied her remains to the crematorium and it had taken every ounce of self-discipline not to let my mind go with her into what followed next.

Now, my brother gently opened the urn and tipped it over.   The ashes danced and twirled with the sunlight as they scattered into the river.  My mom, who had a playful spirit, who loved to dance, had spent years in a wheelchair, cancer taking even her playfulness away.  Though there was so little of her left that afternoon, fire allowed us to see my mom once last time as she truly was.  That day, I lost some of my fear of fire.

One who is more powerful than I is coming after me…he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

Last Christmas, it seemed as if an infinite abyss had opened between our daughter Maria and us.  She was already living at BARC, her intermediate care facility, having a very rough time.  Plans to have her home to help prepare for Christmas kept getting cancelled.  We were advised we should only plan to spend a little while with her at BARC on Christmas Day.  I took long walks each night almost overwhelmed by grief.

One evening on one of my rambles, I got to listen to the brand-new Christmas álbum that Seraphic Fire had recorded right here at All Saints.  The fourth piece, Hymn to the Etrernal Flame, began to play and I had to stop in my tracks.  I wish I had a voice decent enough to sing even one verse to you because the melody is stunningly beautiful.  But it was the words, the words that held me.

Ev’ry face is in you, ev’ry voice, ev’ry sorrow in you,
Ev’ry pity, ev’ry love, ev’ry mem’ry, woven into fire.

In the fire of God’s love, nothing had been lost.  Neither she, nor I, nor all the exquisitely beautiful moments we had as a family when she was still able to live with us.  There was no abyss.  What’s more, that same fire had burned away the chaff of fear we all had lived with, always waiting for the next time she lost control and became dangerously aggressive.  In the holy darkness of that night and many that followed, I found consolation and redemption as I repeated the words,

Ev’ry breath is in you, ev’ry cry, ev’ry longing in you,
Ev’ry singing, ev’ry hope, ev’ry healing, woven into fire.

He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

I spent sabbatical time in October, making a silent 30-day retreat on the shores of Lake Tahoe.  It was a time of intense prayer and self-examination as well as an opportunity to hike in the Sierras.  There was one trail I hiked on frequently, and on that trail, one elm tree that somehow felt like a new friend.  In early October, the leaves of the elm were just beginning to change.  Almost at the end of my time in Tahoe, I was out on the trail and came to the elm in the late afternoon.  The leaves trembled in a light breeze, and the tree had changed to an incandescent yellow that, combined with the sunlight, made my friend look like it was ablaze.

My thirty day retreat was based on the Ignatian Exercises that were developed in the 1500’s.  The intent of the Exercises is to open us more fully to God’s mercy and God’s call to each of us.  Ignatius of Loyola sums up our work as people of faith in a short and beautiful phrase:  Set the World on Fire.  That tree became the sacrament, the outward and visible manifestation of the inward given grace that gives us all–as individuals, as communities of faith, as the church the strength to go out and set the world on fire with God’s love.

One who is more powerful than I is coming after me…he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

The past three years have taught me a radical new way of understanding this passage, with it’s undertones of accusation, judgment and sentence.  In Greek, Metanoia, repentence, means turning, or bending, or leaning in a new direction, towards something.

What if instead of judgment we hear an invitation from John?  What if we can acknowledge our fear of fire and still bend towards the fire of God’s love?  By its nature, fire is untamed and we will not control what becomes of us or where we will be carried.  There will be loss, some of it bone-crushing loss.  But when we say yes to the invitation, our humanity,  in all its brokenness and limitation–and also, all its glory– becomes available  to the “magnificent enterprise of God’s kingdom” (From prayer attributed to Oscar Romero ).  We become a part of a fire that helps turn swords into ploughshares.  We fuel the alchemy of grace that takes what was bent and broken and discarded and makes it new, healthy and whole again.  And on a dark night of desolation, we make it possible for the fire of God’s love to offer warmth and light to a man, his young betrothed and a teeny-tiny little boy for whom there is no room at the inn.  In that light and warmth, the Christ child is born again.

In these days that are growing shorter and nights that are getting longer, come Lord, Jesus, come.  “Kindle the fire of love in our hearts”(From “Holy Spirit Come to Us”, Taize Community). Baptize and weave us into the flames of your love that we may set the world ablaze with grace and joy…

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